Fair Grading In Fairfax: What Does An "A" Really Mean?
Why are some parents in Fairfax and Loudoun counties up in arms about whether an A in a high school course means the student averaged a 90 or a 94?
The controversy coming to the Fairfax school board this month is about one thing: Anxiety over college admission. That emotionally fraught issue has blurred the vision of many parents, who have come to believe that if only their kids' schools would artificially pump up their little sweeties' grades, perhaps their just-slightly-less-than-perfect children might get into colleges that otherwise would give them the big diss.
The Fairfax system uses a six-point grade average structure in which you need a 94 to get an A. Loudoun's scoring grid is very similar. But in many parts of the country, an A represents a numerical grade of 90 or more.
The parent groups in the two Virginia counties contend that college admissions officers cannot comprehend these distinctions and therefore put applicants from these two strong school systems at a competitive disadvantage.
To buy into the parents' FairGrade movement, you have to accept two arguments that just don't hold water:
1) You'd have to believe that admissions officers at small, generally private, colleges that examine each candidate's qualifications individually are intentionally turning a blind eye to differences among school districts. Admissions officers at these colleges usually know each high school so well that they regularly take into account the grading idiosyncrasies of individual quirky teachers. These are admissions offices that compare students within a given school's class, knowing that it makes no sense to compare a kid from Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax with one from, say, Cardozo in the District. The school's offerings, faculty, resources, student population, and yes, grading system are taken very much into account.
I've sat in on admissions committee sessions at four major universities and in every case, admissions officers discussing the candidacies of students from very different high schools spoke knowledgeably and sympathetically about those schools' strengths, weaknesses and oddities--right down to the level of the history teacher who simply doesn't give As or the French teacher who blithely hands out high grades.
2) And you'd have to believe that large, state schools that cannot afford a big enough admissions staff are incapable of distinguishing between an A from Fairfax and an A from a system with a more lenient grading structure. It's true that bigger colleges cannot give their many thousands of candidates the kind of personal attention that they get at small schools. But even large universities very much calculate into their admissions decisions the differences among high schools--and especially among school systems.
Don't just take college admissions officers' word for this: Look at the composition of the classes that are admitted. The simple fact is that a kid from Fairfax is held to a higher standard than a kid from a rural county in southern Virginia; otherwise, Virginia colleges could easily fill their ranks with high-achieving students from northern Virginia. So admissions decisions very much take into account the weaker offerings and different grading systems in a small rural county when compared to a big, well-to-do system such as Fairfax's.
The other main argument advanced by parent activists is the notion that there's a disconnect between the Fairfax grading system and the students' performance on standardized tests. Parents say it's not fair that students who get high SAT scores are not being rewarded with grade-point averages that reflect their performance. The county system's report on this concludes that among Fairfax students who scored between 1200 and 1249 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT, only 5 percent had a GPA of 4.0 or higher.
Parent activists see this as somehow outrageous, but it seems perfectly reasonable--those are decent but not impressive SAT scores. Nationwide, a 1200 on the math and verbal would put a senior in the 80th percentile. If the standardized tests have any validity, you wouldn't expect a student in the 80th percentile to have a 4.0 or anything close to it.
Parents note that in other systems, that level of SAT score does indeed equate with straight A's--the county report says 27 percent of non-Fairfax students who hit those SAT scores got class grades above the straight-A mark.
But all that tells us is that other school systems engage in wholesale grade inflation that does both the students and the larger community a grave disservice. For Fairfax to decide to join those other systems in a grievously distorting policy that tricks parents into believing their kids are far better prepared than they really are would be utter folly. Superintendent Jack Dale is right to stick with his grading system; the real question now is whether school board members will have the courage to do the same.
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