Fairfax Co. weighs changes to high school grading policy

Virginia’s largest school system has started the process of reevaluating its high school grading policy, after principals reported variation in grading processes from school to school.

Sloan Presidio, Fairfax County Public Schools chief academic officer, said during a work session Tuesday that the county hadn’t reviewed grading and reporting practices in over five years.

Among changes under consideration, the county said, is whether a traditional 100-point scale should be used, or whether the county should instead transition to a standards-based grading scale. A standards-based scale, also called a four-point scale, assigns a numerical value to a particular concept based on student mastery of a topic.

The county will consider whether a student’s final grade should be an average of the student’s quarter grades, or whether a rolling gradebook should be used.

The review of the school system’s current policies comes as school officials said the current secondary grading and reporting system “allows for a great degree of team/teacher variability in their grading policies and gradebook setup,” according to school board documents. As a result, a student may have seven different grading policies across classes.

County data also indicates that the county has “significant discrepancies in grade distribution,” and that Hispanic and Black students are overrepresented in the share of students receiving D’s and F’s.

“Parents want consistency,” Fairfax County School Board member Laura Jane Cohen said. “Kids want consistency … I think our kids feel that year-to-year, semester-to-semester, you don’t know what the expectation is going to be.”

Fairfax County implemented temporary grading policies during the coronavirus pandemic, and last year, the county made a score of 50 the bottom of its 100-point scale — meaning 50 is the lowest score a student could receive on an assignment.

High school principals also launched a yearlong study of grading policies last year.

The preliminary findings, several high school principals told the school board Tuesday, were largely positive.

Jeff Litz, principal at Marshall High School, said high schools that altered their approach to grading reported significantly fewer D’s and F’s for Black and Hispanic students, higher graduation rates and higher standards of learning assessment pass rates.

“When grades are used as rewards or consequences for behavior, research tells us that the grades can often demotivate rather than motivate students, and can obstruct their learning,” Litz said.

Tanganyika Millard, principal at West Potomac High, said schools that changed their approach to grading have seen “staggering drops” in dropout rate over the last few years. In 2021, the school’s dropout rate was 6.2%. Its 2022 dropout rate is 3.9%.

Some school board members expressed concern about what grading changes could mean for students who plan to attend college, since colleges may use a different grading method.

Board member Stella Pekarsky was skeptical of “the 50 being the new zero.”

“I have heard from my own students, from special education teachers, from students in my listening tours, that it’s very demotivating to them,” Pekarsky said. “They’ll take the 50, and they’ll be fine. They’re not going to do the assignment.”

Board member Ricardy Anderson, meanwhile, sees the shift as beneficial, because “you do have kids who just make that one stumble, and you really cannot come back from a zero.”

A work group will continue researching best practices, reviewing current policies and seeking information from teachers, administrators, students and families before creating a policy proposal for the school board in the spring.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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