What's in a grade?

The red pen. In our still largely decentralized public school system, it's no big surprise that this old-fashioned instrument of ill repute gets starkly different treatment from district to district and state to state. Three locales, in fact, have recently reopened the question, "what's in a grade"--and come up with very different answers.  Perhaps by evaluating these recent conversations, we can imagine what standard GPAs might look like.

Fairfax County, Virginia, parents are outraged that their children must score a 94 to receive an A. Neighboring counties give As for a mere 90, they argue, and they and their kids are being unfairly penalized when competing for college admission, national merit awards, even a lower car insurance bill. Parents have taken up arms in hopes that extended pressure on the district to follow the example of nearby school systems will lead to a lower bar; Fairfax is contemplating doing so.

Fairfax's one-county crusade against grade inflation is probably sacrificing its students on the altar of its ideals, as parents allege, and remedying that problem is not difficult. Despite cries of the old "slippery slope," shifting the letter-number ratio to match neighboring counties will ultimately benefit Fairfax students (in the short term at least) when it comes to college admissions and the like.

Pittsburgh has tackled the other end of the grading spectrum. All failing grades (those of 50 or below) will henceforth be marked down as 50 percent credit in grade books. Long on the books but only recently enforced, this policy, the district claims, is simply giving students a better chance to "catch up" in the next quarter since quarters are averaged into semester and yearlong grades. "A failing grade is still a failing grade," explains district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. Seems not to matter if it's a 14 or a 49. Round up to 50.

Turning all sorts of "Fs" (actually, they're "Es" in Pittsburgh, presumably because they're loath to further dishearten students with reality) into a standard 50 is unabashed grade inflation under the dubious guise of giving struggling students another chance. The resulting skewed metric will unduly reward them for subpar work.  Dallas tried this F-is-always-a-50 scheme last year and teachers ultimately begged to have it reversed.

Also in Texas, meanwhile, the Higher Education Coordinating Board (which, although it is mainly concerned with Texan tertiary education, controls the secondary GPA question too, as related to Texas college admissions policies) is proposing to exclude from GPA calculations all subjects save English, math, science, social studies and foreign languages. What's more, only courses that count for college credit (International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and dual enrollment) will be awarded extra points in GPA calculations (currently, honors classes are given an extra half point, too). The purpose of these negotiations is to standardize college admission standards across the state. Not surprisingly, the proposal, which will go up for a vote on October 23, has generated quite an uproar. Parents and teachers alike are concerned that students will opt out of electives and rarely show up or participate in required music, physical education, and art classes.

It's not difficult to see that Texas may be going too far. Limiting which courses qualify for heavier GPA weighting is one thing but not counting music, art and PE at all is another. Teenagers will be teenagers; tell them a class doesn't count and lower enrollment, attendance, and effort will surely follow. We've already sidelined these subjects with standardized testing and NCLB, and budget crunches have led some districts to cut them. Enough. Let's not diminish them further with perverse incentives. Non-academic pursuits have been shown to lower drop-out rates, especially amongst at-risk teens. And extracurricular activities, often inspired by exposure in these non-academic classes, may be the secret to the (moderate) success of our public education system. 

What do we have? Three different takes on what makes up that elusive Grade Point Average. Let's think hypothetically. Give Fairfax parents their way and let As equal scores of 90 and above; scrap Pittsburgh's policy and maintain numerical accuracy in grade books. Give extra weight, Texas style, to certain subjects and courses-those counting for college credits make sense-but still include music, art, and physical education in GPA calculations. It's not rocket science, but it is thought-provoking.

If these three examples are any indication, there are oodles of variation in what grades--and diplomas--mean across the country. And what's really at stake here is whether employers and colleges can trust these transcripts and diplomas. When they cannot, students will see much more of the red pen--not on math tests but on job and college applications.

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