Education Opinion

Making the Grade

By Emmet Rosenfeld — January 28, 2009 3 min read

Last week, Fairfax County changed its grading policy to adopt a “ten point” scale. In other words, instead of needing a 94 for an A and a 64 to pass, under the new system 90 or better bags an A and a 60 gets you over the hump.

The school board finally deserted its flimsy rationale that it was “setting a high bar” in the face of pressure from sharp-elbowed parents concerned that their children were somehow disadvantaged in the college admissions process, especially compared to applicants from neighboring school districts like Arlington and Montgomery that use metric scales. (At my current school, the grading scale is even tighter than the one Fairfax is deserting: a 94 only gets you a B+. It’s a non-kerfluffle for us because we record and report our grades, both on report cards and transcripts, as numerical averages only.)

The irony with the sound and fury is that, in the end, it doesn’t signify much. The notion that holding the line on a high A versus a low one means watering down standards implies that there is a single, objective standard applied in all cases when distilling student achievement into a letter grade. That’s bosh.

Standardized tests, with all their flaws, can at least claim to be more objective than grades. Grades are whatever teachers say they are, with virtually no checks or balances other than a rather generic and distant scrutiny from the administration and—here’s the saving grace-- each teacher’s own professional integrity.

Don’t get me wrong. Grades mean something. With good teachers, they are blisteringly accurate representations of achievement in a particular class. But exactly what they mean is not uniform: not from classroom to classroom within one school, and certainly not across buildings or districts. There will always be the legendary tough grader and the push-over, and every flavor in between. Grades are individual recipes concocted by each teacher from ingredients they value. Some teachers prize performance on tests and quizzes; others on papers; some care most about a student’s ability to synthesize material and respond with an original thought.

A dispassionate study of how letter grades are really used would reveal that they are many things: not just a measure of achievement, but also reward, feedback, motivator. In short, both carrot and stick. The one thing they inarguably are not is objective. Even the most intractable accountants, after all, make what are ultimately subjective choices: how many total points for the report and how many for the quiz? How heavily weighted is the homework versus the test?

No discussion of grades is ever dispassionate, of course, hence the recent parent push for a kinder, gentler A in Fairfax. Only time will tell if the goal-- to improve kids’ chances to get into colleges-- will be achieved. I suspect colleges are savvy enough to take the new information in stride, and will probably continue to let in about the same (still pretty high) numbers of FCPS kids as they have in the past. Their prerogatives for diversity, geographic and otherwise, will require this recalibration.

On the other side, will the change result in rampant grade inflation, the watering down of courses, and, by extension, the end of the free world? I’m agnostic here, too. Teachers will continue to govern their classroom economies, jiggering the point values so as to dole out A’s with enough scarcity to keep students honest.

Beyond the new math, getting an A means what it’s always meant: you are among the best. One more immutable truth? Making the grade means just as much to teachers as it does to students and their parents.

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