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June 3, 2009 Published in Schools, Top Stories

ACPS Superintendent Proposes New Grading Scale

by Marisa Cagnoli and Rebecca Newsham

After more than two months of deliberation, Dr. Morton Sherman, superintendent of the Alexandria City Public School system, has proposed changing the grading policy to conform to the policies of other school districts in Virginia and the region. Currently ACPS uses a six-point scale, while others have converted to a ten-point grading scale. Sherman will present his proposal to the Alexandria School Board on Thursday, June 4.

Many schools across the country, including schools in Arlington, VA and Montgomery County, MD, have been using a ten-point grading scale for years. Sherman’s proposed grading scale is in line with the policy that Fairfax County adopted last year. Instead of an A being 94-100, an A will be 93-100 with an A-, 90-92.  A student can pass a course with a 60 percent instead of a 64 percent. Under the proposal, students enrolled in Honors courses will receive an extra one-half quality point if they earn a C or above, and students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses will receive one additional quality point for each AP course in which they earn a C or better.

Superintendent's Proposed Grading Scale, June 2009

Superintendent's Proposed Grading Scale, June 2009

Sherman considered recommendations from a student committee and parent representatives from the T.C. Williams PTSA. “Some parents and students have made a strong argument for making the grading scale at T.C. Williams consistent with those of our neighboring jurisdictions. The proposal brought to me and to the Board by TC Parent Teacher Student Association (TCPTSA) members is not an official recommendation of the PTSA; still, I have met with these parents and their arguments merit consideration.

“Comments by the Student Leadership Subcommittee on grading question whether what constitutes and “A” or a “B” is the right question. The students ask:  “What do grades mean?” In a report to me on June 1, they suggested that the focus should be on whether students are mastering the skills they need to be successful. I trust that our dedicated teachers and administrators will not allow that essential question to be overlooked.

“The larger issues of what do the grades mean, and what are the real and consistent learning standards and expectations are not addressed by this or any grading scale. Those are the issues that merit our attention and dedication in the years ahead,” Sherman wrote in his proposal to the Board.

The T.C. Williams PTSA discussed possible changes at their March 17 meeting.  They recommended that ACPS collect data similar to that which was used in Fairfax County before they changed their grading policy. The student committee recommended a change in testing policy, not a change in the grading scale.

“We talked to both students and teachers at T.C. The students liked the idea of the ten-point grading scale, but the teachers opposed it because they feel that their students are lazy,” said junior Madeline Bryan, co-president of the Superintendent’s Round Table and a member of the subcommittee on grading policy. “Our proposal is that we change the policy on test taking. Students should be allowed to retake tests and do extra credit work to raise their test grades. Some excellent students are simply poor test takers. We would keep the six point scale, but our proposal would make it easier for students to achieve better grades.”

U.S. Grading Policies

Nationally, schools use three different grading scales. Norm referenced grading uses percentages and ratios of classes to determine the grade for each student. Alternative grading systems include a “pass-fail” system and non-graded evaluations. The most popular grading system in the U.S. is the criterion referenced grading system, which includes both the six-point grading scale and the ten-point grading scale. Nationwide surveys of school-grading policies conducted by the Educational Research Service have noted that 90 and 80 percent of school districts used letter or numeric grades in 1977 and 1988, respectively. In 1988, 28 percent of schools used percentages in grading and about one-third of the schools used pass/fail or credit/no credit options for some course grades (Robinson and Craver, 1989). According to The College Board, approximately eight percent of schools report using a nontraditional grading system and only one percent of schools do not assign grades.

“Criterion-referenced systems are often used in situations where the faculty are agreed as to a standard of performance but the quality of the students is unknown or uneven; where the work involves student collaboration or teamwork; and where there is no external driving factor such as needing to systematically reduce a pool of eligible students,” according to a U.S. Department of Education report on the U.S. grading system.

There has always been some concern over the comparability of grades (Adelman, 1983; Camara, 1994), and with increased competition among a growing proportion of youth planning to enter four year colleges, these concerns have only increased. For example, much has been written about the overall increases in average high school grades (“grade inflation”) and the general stability of standardized test scores over the past decade or more (Hardy, 1997). These considerations are part of the debate about changing the ACPS grading policy.

FAIRGRADE compiled much of the research supporting Fairfax County Public Schools’ change from a six-point to a ten-point grading scale last year. “FAIRGRADE researched the grading policies for 44 of the 100 schools, using 2007-08 high school profiles, Florida legislation, and/or phone conversations with school staff. (Hard copies of this data are available from FAIRGRADE.)

“The 44 Gold Medal High Schools selected for the FAIRGRADE data research were chosen to reflect the geographic diversity in grading scale usage.

“Of the 44 Gold Medal High Schools FAIRGRADE researched, 33 high schools use the standard 10-point grading scale and only one school of the 44 uses a 6-point like the one Fairfax County (FCPS) schools use. The other 10 schools FAIRGRADE researched use other grading scale methods including individual teacher discretion and numeric grades,” FAIRGRADE’s report said.

ACPS Policy Change

While Sherman is recommending a policy change, he is also encouraging a wider discussion about the meaning of grades. “Any change to the grading scale should be considered in conjunction with a more thorough statement of how to assess proficiency, such as the Cherry Hill philosophy and guidelines which includes formative assessment as well as summative assessment,” Sherman said.

The Board will discuss Sherman’s proposal on Thursday, June 4.

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