Why some Virginia students’ next report cards may be a better indication of what they know

In a video shared on YouTube, leaders at James Madison High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, said a student’s previous test grade will be changed if their score on the next test is higher, effective in the 2023-24 school year.

The school will also use a rolling a gradebook, according to the video. Fairfax County Public Schools policy allows for either a traditional or rolling gradebook.

In a statement, a school system spokeswoman said its a school-based grading decision that is in alignment with the county’s grading guidelines. Schools have some latitude as long as they fall within county rules. The spokeswoman characterized the elements discussed in the video as “nothing significantly new.”

Late last year, Fairfax County said it started the process of reevaluating its high school grading policy, though there hasn’t been an update on those efforts since November. Meanwhile, in nearby Arlington, Superintendent Francisco Duran recently signed off on changes to middle and high school grading changes that will allow students to retake or redo assignments and reduces the weight of quizzes or homework on a student’s overall grade.

The transition is part of an approach called equity grading, which some experts say reduces subjectivity in grading and allows a grade to truly represent a student’s knowledge. Critics of the strategy wonder whether it’ll prepare kids for life after high school.

Elementary schools in Arlington use a standards-based grading process, which allows teachers to describe how well a student has mastered a particular concept, instead of a traditional grading style.

Rick Wormeli, a former Fairfax and Loudoun County teacher and now an educational consultant and author, said the majority of K-12 schools in districts across the country are either investigating how to make similar grading changes or have already switched to using them.

“This is not a fleeting fad,” Wormeli said. “This is us evolving as a profession, and also as a community that wants the best for its students.”

Grades, Wormeli said, should be as accurate as possible, but sometimes they’re not. For example, he said, if a student’s essay is getting graded for voice, but they don’t use the proper margin, points are taken off for the wrong margin. But, under the grading for equity guise, there would be separate grades for voice and scholarly presentation, he said.

The standards-based approach, Wormeli said, enables a progress report to truly represent what a student knows, instead of a percentage system, “or this system where we allow the tissue boxes you brought in to give you extra points in your grade, or the grade to represent things that are not indicative of what you claim to be reporting.”

It matches a standard, such as a student will multiply and divide fractions, with a separate rubric or proficiency scale.

“It gives parents and students way more information than some like this — Physics, 11th grade, 86% — that doesn’t tell you anything,” Wormeli said.

Sometimes, Wormeli said, he tells students he doesn’t care if they do a project or take a test, because what he’s looking at “is not the vehicle used to deliver the evidence, but literally the evidence of learning itself.”

“That is the report, because I want the grade to be an accurate reflection of what you’ve learned, not how compliant you were,” Wormeli said.

For parents who are sometimes skeptical of the different approach to grading, Wormeli said he asks them how they’re evaluated in their job or profession.

“It’s usually by presenting evidence of your performance, your productivity, not how you parked in the parking lot that day, or how many hours you spent preparing to do the presentation, or whatever it was, we grade you on the presentation itself,” Wormeli said.

College admissions officers usually like the equitable grading approach, according to Wormeli, because they trust that a student’s grades are accurate representations of how much they’ve learned.

As of a few years ago, he said, 40% of high school seniors have to retake high school courses in college, “because the grades are false reports.”

“The school districts that have evidence-based, grading for equity, standards-based approaches, they tend to have a better reputation for, ‘We can trust the transcript,'” he said.

The approach has also resulted in students having a more enjoyable school experience, he said.

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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