To the grade grubbers go the spoils. And the grade grubbers in this case are rabble-rousing parents in Virginia's Fairfax County. Residents of the high-powered Washington suburb have been battling the school district's tough grading practices; chief among their complaints is that a score of 93% gets recorded as a lowly B+. After forming an official protest group called Fairgrade last year and goading the school board into voting on whether to ease the standards, parents marshaled 10,000 signatures online and on Jan. 22 gathered nearly 500 supporters to help plead their case. After two hours of debate, the school board passed a resolution, a move critics consider a defeat in the war on grade inflation. (Read about students getting paid for good grades.)
At most schools in the U.S., a score of 90 earns you an A, but in Fairfax County, getting the goods demands a full 94. Merely passing is tougher too, requiring a 64 rather than a 60. Nor do students get much help clearing those high bars if they take tougher courses. Compared with how many districts weight GPAs for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, Fairfax County's half-point boost is peanuts. The result, protesters say, is that Fairfax kids are at a disadvantage on multiple fronts: snagging good-driver insurance discounts (which often factor in a student's GPA), earning NCAA eligibility, winning merit scholarships and oh yeah getting into good colleges. (See pictures of the college dorm's evolution.)
Sure, admissions officers say they take into account the fact that some schools are more rigorous than others. But as more universities downplay the SAT or drop it from consideration altogether, colleges are making it known that GPAs are more important than ever before. And this shift is fueling a growing firestorm over grades: 75 districts in 12 states have relaxed their grading standards since 2005. Meanwhile, attendees at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities this month in Seattle argued for ditching grades in college and instead using the long-form "narrative evaluations" already required by some universities. (Read more about an antidote to college rankings.)
Fairfax was never considering anything that drastic, but in response to parents' complaints, the superintendent in April launched a study on how the district's grading system affects students. (Fairgrade, initially a co-sponsor of the study, jumped ship in December when its members disagreed with how the school board characterized the results.) Based on the findings released in early January which showed that changing the scale would slightly boost GPAs but was inconclusive about whether it would help students get into better colleges the school board on Jan. 22 agreed to start using a higher premium for tough courses and to adopt a new variant of a 10-point grading scale.
Fairgrade is "cautiously optimistic," says the group's president, Megan McLaughlin, a former Georgetown University admissions officer whose three sons are ages 8, 11 and 13. Her husband is a Fairfax County high school grad, and McLaughlin says her in-laws recall fighting the current grading system before it was implemented in 1981. McLaughlin and others are cautious because the details of the new grading system still need to be ironed out.
The vote is good news for local business leaders who have joined the Fairgrade effort, warning that families worried about their kids getting into good colleges may move out of the county if the school district doesn't change its grading system. Talk of a possible exodus killing off businesses and destroying property values sounds a tad melodramatic, but given the tanking market and ongoing credit crunch, it's no wonder people are trying to do everything they can to shore up the local economy. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
Opponents of Fairgrade counter that any move perceived as encouraging grade inflation could tarnish the school district's sterling reputation. Stuart Gibson, a Justice Department litigator serving his 14th year on the school board, voted for changing the grading system but will continue to oppose lowering the passing grade to 60. And he wants to maintain rigorous standards despite the three dozen e-mails he gets every day from Fairgrade supporters. He notes that in a neighboring district, 36% of students who graduated in June had a weighted GPA of 4.0 or higher. "I moved here from Minnesota, but I'd never been to Lake Wobegon," Gibson says, referring to the fictional town where all the children are above average. "Do we really want to have a reputation as an easy-A jurisdiction?" He adds, "It doesn't improve their achievement. It just improves their achievement on paper."
Gibson's foes argue that when you're talking about some of the best schools in the country, regular statistical rules don't apply. In 2007, for instance, Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology produced 158 semifinalists in the prestigious National Merit scholarship competition more than any other high school and boasted the highest average SAT score in the country. Yet out of 432 seniors that year, according to McLaughlin, only 16 graduated with straight A's. "They happen to attend a school that has a large percentage of bright, high-performing students," she says. "You should hope that the student GPAs reflect the SAT averages, which are a national measure of the caliber and the abilities of the students." McLaughlin adds that high standards should come from tough teachers and a rigorous curriculum, not from artificially deflating grades.
Whether grade inflation exists and how it affects students has been debated at least since 1894, when a committee at Harvard declared that A's and B's were awarded "too readily." Princeton in 2004 became the only Ivy League school to adopt a grade-deflation policy, including quotas for A's. To skeptics like Gibson, grades should be guides to help students see where they can improve, not rubber stamps to confirm a smart kid's hunch that he or she is smart or gold stars on a résumé. "Grades don't only exist to be reported to college-admissions officers," he says. Gibson also rejects the Fairgrade argument that adjusting the standards would improve the dropout rate among those at risk of failing. "I don't think it helps any student to say, 'Well, we're going to lower the standard to pass so you can stay in school,' " he says. "When you go out in the world, there are certain skills and knowledge that you need to succeed."
Despite the apparent victory for Fairgrade, in the end both sides still have to manage their expectations. Gibson recalls an e-mail he got from one parent. "It said, 'My daughter's a solid C student, and if you don't change the grading scale, she's never going to get into the University of Virginia,' " he says, referring to the state's highly selective flagship public university. "I'm thinking, No, we're going to have to change the grading scale a lot." After all, the goal is achieving fairness, not fantasy.