…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

Fairer Grades for Fairfax County?

January 24th, 2009 . by economistmom

Here’s an update on the grading-scale issue I posted about a few weeks ago.  This story in today’s Washington Post even quotes a classmate of one of my daughters; both of my teenagers attend James Madison High School in Vienna, VA (part of the Fairfax County Public Schools system):

Sydney Sampson, 16, was getting ready for school at 5:30 a.m. yesterday when her father told her that the Fairfax County School Board had voted to abandon the tough grading policy that thousands of parents and students had rallied against.

“I started doing a little happy dance around my room,” the Madison High School sophomore said.

Sydney, who gets mostly A’s and takes two Advanced Placement courses, said the school system’s current grading scale does not show what Fairfax students “are capable of.” She hopes the new policy will better showcase her academic achievements when she applies for college. Her dream since age 4 has been to go to the University of Virginia, she said.

Her enthusiasm for the change in policy was shared around the county. Students and parents have been lobbying for years for the change, citing intense competition for spots at select colleges. On Thursday night, the board relented.

The decades-old policy set the bar for earning an A at 94 and the bar for passing at 64. Most school systems use what is called a 10-point scale, under which scores between 90 and 100 earn an A. At those schools, 60 often is a passing score…

A day after their decision, School Board members were considering how to implement the policy while maintaining the district’s high academic standards.

Thursday’s vote did make some things clear: There will be a new grading system in place by September, and it will be based on a 10-point scale, which means that 90 to 100 percent will result in an A. The scale also will include pluses and minuses.

What remains undecided is whether A-minus would start at 92 or 93, for example, and whether the score required to pass a class will change. This question is likely to inspire more debate. Many board members are uncomfortable with lowering the bar for a passing score.

The School Board asked Superintendent Jack D. Dale to study variations on a 10-point scale and report back by the end of March.

Many students will see an immediate change: an extra GPA point for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. Currently, the increase is a half-point. Their recalculated GPAs will be included in transcripts that schools send to colleges every February.

The board also approved a half-point boost for honors classes, but that change will not take effect immediately. School officials plan to review courses offered throughout the county to uniformly define honors classes…

The question mark I place after the title of this post reflects the opinion of my oldest and over-achieving daughter, who because she’s been able to get A’s on the tougher grading scale, feels that the mandated grade inflation now cheapens or devalues her academic currency–i.e., those A’s already on her transcript.  Personally, I think this better levels the academic playing field between Fairfax County schools and the rest of the country, making comparisons across the school districts easier for college admissions committees (and boosting the relative ranking of Fairfax County students).  What my daughter’s really complaining about is that the grading scale in the A range will no longer be refined enough to pick up the fact that as someone who was able to get A’s when the bar was set at 94, she’s better than the students who will move into the A range with the bar lowered to 90.  I think distinguishing between the lower A’s (the new 90-94 range) and higher A’s (the old 94+) using an A- grade might provide some comfort to the already-A students.  And A+’s anyone?  (If that would even work on a 4-point GPA scale.)

5 Responses to “Fairer Grades for Fairfax County?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Mike Elings

    Grading is such a difficult thing to figure out. Since most grades are determined by the teacher grading particular pieces of work it is hard to compare students grades.

    I taught both middle school and high school science for 11 years and knew that an A in my class did not necessarily mean the same thing as an A in my colleague’s class across the hall.

    I am sure Fairfax’s grade scale was attempting to fight grade inflation. The trick is it seems that teachers could adjust the way the grade so that more students fell in the the A range. With that in mind the grading scale is somewhat irrelevant. I doubt there will be that many more A’s with a shift to the more traditional grading policy.

    College’s are well aware of the shortfalls of GPAs and therefore use them as only a portion of the criteria for acceptance. There are many other factors that the use to determine admittance.

    Grades on nationally administered exams like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are used to compare students from various schools across the country. Since these are administered on the same day and graded as a whole nation they can give colleges great insight into how well a school prepares its students.

    Mike Elings
    Total Registration, LLC - Helping high schools register their students for the AP exams online.

  2. comment number 2 by: Bill Greenlaw


    Looking at a grade or score of an individual without understanding the distrubution is of no value. It is clear that your local scool board has spent much time on a subject that has contributes nothig to improving the education of the students in the district, but just buggers the numbers.

    We all want to believe we live where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Garrison” Keillor says that with a sense of humor, but I see little humor in what your board is doing.

  3. comment number 3 by: Paul

    You know, this feels meaningless. How well have they learned the subject matter is not addressed. Bill Greenlaw points out that, without the distribution of scores, it also doesn’t provide a comparison with their classmates. But to return to my first point - what does it mean in terms of learning the subject?

  4. comment number 4 by: Jason Seligman

    Sorry to that Sophomore, but I think it is too early to “happy-dance”… “Fair” grades are rhetorical at best.

    Thanks to the policy change it is going to be hard to ‘price’ the value of a Fairfax grade for a year or so, at least. Prices are relative, and we have just witnessed devaluation. UVA will catchup, though the response function is a bit of a black box here to be sure.

    –A Trip to Georgia for Insight–
    A bit of relevant information here, Georgia pays in-state tuition, or grants the equivalent disbursement for private colleges, for residents with a B average or better in High School. Continuing scholarship fundng is contingent on keeping that GPA at milestone checkpoints.

    In late ‘03 when there were concerns about the affordability of the program (it was projected to begin overspending revenue sources) we heard testimony that over time (the program was introduced in 1993) public schools had changed the GPA score equivalents to letter grades, to much the same effect as Fairfax apparently is attempting now, but in the opposite way. Specifically:

    Georgia allowed schools to present either letter or numeric averages. Over time some schools switched to presenting numeric averages when reporting to the state, and to inflating the value of what an A, B, C stood for. In such a situation letter grades are given, and numeric correspondence increases, (the mechanical reverse of the Fairfax case, An A for example credits the student with… a 94, instead of a 90, say).

    Okay, that is the basic idea, now for an advaced course in grade inflation— Since HOPE is contingen on an “80″ or better, the basic incentive continues to plus and minus ticks to genrate assymmetry about the letter grade’s numeric vaule. Minus-discounts are reduced, and plus-premiums are increased in distance from the standard letter grade in a case like that which pervailed in Georgia.

    - an incresed number of HOPE scholars
    (the program cost more than otherwise)
    - an increaed number who lose the scholarship at the first milestone
    (the effectiveness of the program declined)
    - frustration and confusion all around…

    What was done?
    Instead of having schools calculate the GPA equivalence, that process has now been centralized to the GSFC beginning with the class of ‘07-’08. (Score one for fiscal responsibility leading to overall better policy administraton!)

    At GSFC David Lee (who has known the program intimately since it’s outset) manages this centralized system. I do not know specifics but from conversations with him I’d guess that conversion is based on reputation which is likely updated by standardized test differentials, and how successful students are at keeping HOPE after their first year of study.

    –Back to Virginia–
    My sense is that UVA already ‘prices’ Fairfax differently, and that the likely total effect of a quiet policy change would have been to increase Fairfax admissions for a couple of years until an adjustment to priors was instituted, but, thanks to the sound of all that ‘happy-dancing’ it is likely that Fairfax’s ‘fair-grade correction’ impact is now muted. Indeed, overcorrection in expectations might even occur. In short, it was probably valuable to have a reputation of being rigorous so it is hard to say what the net impact will be over near horzons.

    Suffice it to say this is a bad time to be a good student that performs poorly on standardized tests in Fairfax…

    So, I encourage Sidney and her cohort to focus on studies, to fill out a well rounded high school career, and to increase empahsis on study for standardized tests.

    for more on the HOPE Scholarship, and the 03-04 commission work see:

    More on David Lee can be found here:
    He can be found at

  5. comment number 5 by: Kathy

    From what I understand, this change would hurt the student that worked hard for top grades. In order to look better than the next applicant this same student should lower theirstandard to 90% and then do a sport or run a club. I’m sure if you told the football team that the B players will now be in with the A players but still play other B teams and colleges won’t be allowed to know who actually did the best in terms of performance there would be an uproar.