Uh, Oh, Fairfax Schools Are Updating Grading Standards

by James A. Bacon

Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school system in Virginia, has updated its grading standards in an effort to make them fairer and more consistent, reports The Washington Post. Among the more prominent features of the new system, students will be allowed to retake tests for full credit.

In theory, the new system will base grades on what a student has learned rather than “behavioral metrics,” a term the Post leaves un-defined but apparently refers to how students behave in class.

Let us postulate up front that there is no “perfect” grading system. Creating uniform criteria makes it difficult for teachers to exercise judgment based upon their personal knowledge of the student. On the other hand, a system that allows teachers to inject personal judgments in their grades opens itself to charges of bias, in particular racial/ethnic bias.

As educators have wrestled with grading practices over the years, the overall trajectory in Virginia public schools has been to lower expectations, relax standards, and promote students to the next grade on the pretext that they have mastered the material. Grade inflation is the result. If grade inflation were a country, U.S. schools would be Venezuela.

The primary goal, never explicitly stated, is not to ensure that students are learning but to reduce racial/ethnic disparities. WaPo reporter Karina Elwood back-handedly acknowledges this reality. “The move away from traditional grading picked up steam during the pandemic,” she writes, “as educators looked critically at student performance and sought ways to close performance gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

Ironically, lowering expectations and making it easier to get passing grades, coincided with a widening of the learning gap between racial groups, as measured by Standards of Learning (SOL) test results, in recent years. We’ll find out if the trend continues when the Virginia Department of Education releases SOL results for the 2023-24 school year sometime this fall.

The new grading policies allegedly focus on what a student learns rather than his or her diligence in meeting teacher-imposed deadlines. “The grade is supposed to reflect what I learned, where I ended up, even if it took me an extra step to get there,” Susan Brookhart, an education professor emerita at Duquesne University, tells the Post.

One obvious flaw in this reasoning is that students master more in school than their A-B-Cs. Deadlines associated with test and homework assignments instill future orientation and self-discipline, virtues that are critical for academic achievement in later years, including college. Allowing students to redo homework assignments and retake tests whenever it suits them teaches them the wrong lessons.

Eric Wolf Welch, a social studies teacher at Justice High School quoted in the article, states what every teacher in a classroom knows: Some students will “game the system” if you let them. He worries that the new grading system — particularly letting students redo assignments for up to 100 percent credit — won’t prepare them for later life.

Another issue not directly addressed in the article is this: When students are retaking a test, are they retaking the same test that they flunked previously or a different version of the test? If they are retaking the identical test — if they already know the questions and can look up the answers — the re-do is a travesty and the supposition that they have mastered the material is a joke. The details here are important.

The first step in reversing the learning decline in public schools is restoring order in classrooms and hallways, which should start by banning cell phone use in schools. The next step is raising expectations and holding students to a higher standard as reflected in the grading system.

If enforcing order and standards temporarily worsens outcome disparities between Whites, Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics, that’s a price that must be paid. Telling students (of whatever race) that they are learning what they need to when in fact they are not, is not compassion but cruelty. Failure to instill the habits needed to succeed in life does not empower students, it cripples them. The outcomes that matter most — skills learned and knowledge gained — are the disparities we need to address. Grades are symptoms of a deeper failure.

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37 responses to “Uh, Oh, Fairfax Schools Are Updating Grading Standards”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    everything below is my OPINION:

    In general, it's harder to make the grading tougher because many parents don't want to hear that their kids are behind and they think it stresses their kids. I have some relatives that felt this way. They were afraid of getting a teacher who was strict on the grades – even in k-6!

    Matt Hurt, if I remember correctly, also referred to "low expectations".

    So I'd be curious to hear him and some other educators weigh in on this.

    So the idea of letting kids take the tests again is an opportunity to a second chance.

    In terms of "order" absenteeism, disruption , etc… what happens to a kid who fails and knows he/she is and he/she can't improve? I would posit that these are the kids that are absentees , disrupters, etc.. they have nothing to lose, they know they're pretty much doomed when they "graduate".

    Not every kid is going to make it – that's a given but for every one that makes it, it's one less who doesn't pay taxes, gets entitlements and perhaps runs into trouble with the law and worse.

    The entire concept of public education in the US and around the world is to produce a citizen who becomes a part of the economy, not a drag on it. Other than that, what should we expect from it?

    1. Matt Hurt Avatar
      Matt Hurt

      Several teachers have reported in other divisions that have adopted similar policies that it doesn't take long for kids to learn that they don't have to prepare for the first test attempt. Their first attempt is merely test reconnaissance to determine what's on the test, and then they study what they saw and then take the test again. This has negative unintended consequences in a number of ways. First, teachers have to spend more time grading. Second, since kids didn't study appropriately for the first test attempt, they're less ready to learn subsequent skills, which in turn negatively affects the flow of the course throughout the year.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Thanks much for joining in. I very much appreciate your perspective!

  2. Clarity77 Avatar

    Sad to see this especially for those of us who appreciate the quality of education we received in the '70s in the Fairfax County School system. A system that was nationally acclaimed but now having gone full woke has chosen the road to perdition. Woke is always a joke. Glad none of my family attend there.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Hear Hear.

      Groveton, 1977

  3. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    1972 Olympic Basketball Final…
    Keep re-playing until the Russkies win!
    Keep taking those tests until the results validate our unreality!

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    We did this in Loudoun 5 years ago. One of many contributing causes to retirement on the first possible day eligible. The school teacher is right. The kids will game the system. This is an ice pick right to the heart of merit. Notice how the Fairfax school board pulled this rabbit out of the hat in July when nobody is paying attention?

    Meanwhile at Fork Union Military Academy the One Subject Plan roles on. 7 weeks of one class for the entire day. Supervised homework for 90 minutes every evening. No retakes or curving of grades. They RAISED the grading scale from a 60% passing to a 75% passing. Nearly everyone masters the course one subject at a time. A Virginia tradition that has been going on since the 1950s.

  5. WayneS Avatar

    Let me guess:

    75 – 100 = A
    Less than 75 = B

    There are no Cs or below because all the children in Fairfax are above average.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Too bad. When I was in HS, my goal was to make 34 Cs.

      pass-fail. The way it should be, like driver’s licenses. That’s why most people can honestly believe they’re better than average drivers.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        You know….. the folks headed to college sorta know and plan accordingly on the grades… and the others that are not, are there any "gradations" to "high school graduate"? C, D, D- ??? 😉

  6. Lefty665 Avatar

    “as educators looked critically at student performance and sought ways to close performance gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

    Looks like another way of saying "If all else fails, lower your standards". But how about the alternative, teaching all kids how to read and write?

    "If they are retaking the identical test — if they already know the questions and can look up the answers — the re-do is a travesty and the supposition that they have mastered the material is a joke."

    There may be another way to look at that. If the original test covered the material that students need to know, then focused them on it through a test, they can look up the information they missed and demonstrate on a retest that they have learned it.

    It's sorta like the Army's 3 step process on teaching:
    1 Here's what we're going to tell you.
    2 We're now telling you what we want to tell you.
    3 Here's what we told you.

    1. Marty Chapman Avatar
      Marty Chapman

      I can see a retake allowing for partial credit. Allowing a student who earned a C to retake the test and make an A not so much. Where this could be useful is for those who failed (is that term even allowed anymore?) and can retake to make passing grade.

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Only way I've ever learned anything is by screwing up and saying I don't need to do that again. By eliminating unsuccessful behaviors what's left is on average better. Rinse and repeat for a lifetime. As the Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes "Too soon old, too late smart".

        Seems that highlighting failures on tests gives the opportunity to learn what was missed, get better and be rewarded by a successful retest. Or, it may just be my personal issue with learning.

        1. Marty Chapman Avatar
          Marty Chapman

          I think we largely agree. Learning and mastery are the goal. Grades are just a means of measuring. In a geology class my freshman year of college I got back my first test with a D and note from the Professor that said ” I have a notion you know more than you managed to get down on paper, come by my office.” After an hour of very pleasant conversation, I walked out with a C plus and finished the term with a B.

          1. Lefty665 Avatar

            It's a recent conversion for me. I always sort of ridiculed the idea of retests. My assumption being that either you knew the material or you didn't. Then came the blinding flash of the obvious, a failed test could be a learning opportunity. Further, it put a fine point on what was not known and focused attention on what needed to be learned.

            As you note, learning and mastery are the goal, testing is simply a measure of what has been learned and what still needs to be learned. It is part of the learning process and not an end in itself as I had always viewed it.

            Learn something new every day.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      "It's sorta like the Army's 3 step process on teaching:
      1 Here's what we're going to tell you.
      2 We're now telling you what we want to tell you.
      3 Here's what we told you."

      Also, the foundation for a good persuasive argument.

      Tell them what you're going to tell them
      Tell them
      Tell them what uyou told them

      Sounds a bit silly until you consider a criminal trial

      Opening statement
      Cross examination
      Closing statement

  7. agpurves Avatar

    It would also help if schools taught reading and arithmetic by the critical 3rd grade. They haven't due to their quack "progressive" anti-phonics reading curriculum and anti-drill arithmetic curriculum. The only children who learn are the ones who are taught at home. Public schools are a bastion of systemic racism.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      There are something like 150 elementary schools in Fairfax:

      Here are the top 10 for SOLs 3rd grade reading:

      School Name Pass Rate
      Haycock Elementary 99.31
      Flint Hill Elementary 96.47
      Colvin Run Elementary 96.19
      Waynewood Elementary 94.96
      Great Falls Elementary 94.52
      Sangster Elementary 93.75
      Churchill Road Elementary 93.42
      Wolftrap Elementary 93.42
      Spring Hill Elementary 93.23
      Kent Gardens Elementary 92.2

      here are the bottom 10:

      Woodley Hills Elementary 37.7
      Dogwood Elementary 32.47
      Herndon Elementary 32.38
      Bailey's Upper Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences 29.57
      Bucknell Elementary 28.57
      Hybla Valley Elementary 27
      Lynbrook Elementary 26.98
      Hutchison Elementary 25.6
      Mount Eagle Elementary 18.92
      Graham Road Elementary 17.5

      Here's a link to the whole list:


      1. agpurves Avatar

        Look at the scores by ethnic group.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          or economically disadvantaged neighborhood schools?

          here is link to DOE Build a Table – go for it!


        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          or economically disadvantaged neighborhood schools?

          here is link to DOE Build a Table – go for it!


          1. agpurves Avatar

            I’ve done it.

          2. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            How did my late uncle wind up with a master's degree? My grandfather died when my uncle was 6. My dad was 8. My grandmother lost the house and raised 4 boys on $68 a month (Army Veterans Widow's Pension), plus anything they could scrape up. No cost of living increases back then.

            My uncle joined the Marines during WWII. He served in the 24th Marines, 4th Marine Division. He fought in battles in Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tinian, and Roi Namur as a rifleman and was wounded twice. He used the GI bill to get a bachelors degree and then a masters.

            Poverty should have prevented this result.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            Some folks in poverty beat all the odds TMT but vast majority do not. Back when your Uncle made it, the economy was not so harsh to people who lacked academic skills.. If you were reasonably smart and not lazy, you could to well. You could join the Armed Services and they would train you AND give you GI education benefits. Today, if you graduate HS with a 3rd grade education, you’re pretty much toast. Even the Armed Services don’t want you because the minimum required education for the 21st century economy are quite a bit more than the 20th century economy.

            “WE” all of us need to recognize that when a kid fails school, it harms us also. It’s in our own best interests
            to get as many kids to pass as possible.

            Hey, would you share an email with me? send it to JAB and he’ll forward to me. Thanks.

          4. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            Larry, I don't disagree with your basic position. It's harder to reach the top when you start with fewer resources. But we provide significant extra resources to schools with large numbers of low-income students.

            Fairfax County sends extra federal, state and local funds to schools with students that meet Title 1 standards. These extra funds provide much smaller class sizes, extra counselors, phycologists, and many other resources. Fairfax County pays for tutoring for any low-income student who wants to try to get into TJ.

            I'd argue that society has a duty to provide more help to low-income students than it does for other students. But these students and their parents or guardians have a concomitant duty to take advantage of those extra resources. It's part of the social contract.

            Many children and their parents or guardians take advantage of those resources to one degree or another. But many don't. They choose not to do so. To put it bluntly, they choose to fail. And most of them will obtain bad results because of those decisions. It is not society's fault. We have free will as human beings.

            Moreover, it's not like a student has one and only one chance to use the extra help. Each new school year presents a new opportunity. And a student can decide mid-year to change course. We all have free will.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            re: “they choose to fail” seems like a pretty broad statement without much evidence to me. No question, therei is a problem but not just Fairfax. It’s in Henrico, Chesterfield ,RIchmond and I think in Wake County where you are and to attribute it largely to “they choose to fail, so we should walk away” in not a winning position. These folks grow up to need great gobs of entitlements that we pay for. Is that okay? This is a little like poverty. It ain’t fixed 100% by a long shot but have we made some inroads? Is it a failure because we have not fixed it 100%?

          6. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

            Why isn't it accurate? Assuming a student does not have a severe learning disability that would prevent him/her from functioning in general education classes, a student from a low-income family who takes advantage of the extra resources will most certainly graduate with a sound basic education that will prepare him/her to function in society and to gain and maintain employment. And some will do much better. Such child has chosen to succeed.

            But if that same student doesn't work at learning and take advantage of the extra resources, he/she will most likely fail at life. The decision not to participate and work with the added resources is a decision to accept failure in life. The bottom line is that people are ultimately responsible for their decisions. Whether that person will need Medicaid, for example, is immaterial to that person's decision to accept failure.

            You seem to argue over and over that, if society just provided more and more and more, these kids would magically be educated despite their refusal to do their part with the added resources they receive. They reject the social contract. As human beings with free will, they have the right and ability to do this but will suffer the consequences. And there will be costs to society. But the ultimate decision still rests with the individual

          7. LarrytheG Avatar

            TMT – do you know any kids who do dumb stuff that can harm themselves especially if their parents
            didn’t get a good education and don’t value it? Yes, some kids DO choose to succeed. Others have
            no clue how important school is or it is their ticket out of poverty until 10-20 years later.

            I AGREE and don’t really think “more” and “more” alone will fix it, and I agree with you, such kids are not motivated by traditional methods but they are kids…too young to really know they need to learn.

            But make no mistake, when they “fail” you and I help pay the bill to support them with entitlements. It’s in your and my best interest to support efforts to find better ways for more kids to succeed.

            When mom/dad barely have a 3rd grade education themselves, and the best they have is a low-paying job, and they live in a poverty-stricken neighborhood… etc.. bad stuff happens to the kid even before he/she gets to exercise is “free will”.

            Look at that data pull I did for Fairfax 3rd grade reading SOLs. dozens of ENTIRE schools score like 30 or 40. does that mean most of the kids in all those schools CHOSE to fail whereas over in other neighborhoods (usually with far better parental education and incomes) , over 90% of those kids in dozens of schools CHOOSE to succeed?

    2. Lefty665 Avatar

      You started so well. Too bad you ruined it with the last two sentences, especially the last one.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    Given the disparities in grading standards among school systems, and …
    Given the sheer number of school systems in the US …
    How do colleges that have waived the SAT (or made it optional) decide which students should be admitted?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Way back when, I had to take an "entrance" test for College and it then identified some deficits and some courses necessary to get back up to a level to be able to take the next level courses.

      Seems to me, if someone is willing to put the effort in, then it should not really be as much a "weeding out" as it is to support the student in advancement.

      For k-12, get as many as you can to stay, study, advance and not turn into absentees, disruptors. A kid who fails 3rd grade will not easily advance and needs intervention and if they don't get it but they have to stay til grade 12, what chance do they have to master the material ahead of them? What motivation do they have to study if they can't read?

      "Education" is all about helping people to attain their potential and in doing so, we benefit all of us because that person pays taxes, can take care of themselves/family, does not need entitlements, does not drift into illegal activities or prison.

      1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

        It's not about helping people obtain their potential. It is about making resources available that, if used correctly, will enable people to reach their potential. At some point, many students choose not to take advantage of what's available. They choose to fail, which, in turn, can lead them to a life of dependency, scraping the bottom rungs of society and even prison. And, yes, that imposes other costs on society. But choice belongs to all of us.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          “choice” in a 8-9yr old whose parents have 3rd grade educations themselves..?? I dunno…I don’t think too many 8yr old really understand how important school is.

  9. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    It's one thing to allow a student to retake a test once. It's another thing to allow a student to retake the same test more than once or to retake every test. This goes to show more evidence that FCPS is no longer the high-quality school division it once was. Keep in mind that FCPS was unable to start remote learning for students until six weeks later than other school systems in Metro D.C. because the IT department failed to update software for three years.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      AARP provides tax prep and they do it according to IRS requirements which requires someone to get at least 80% correct to be certified. If you fail, you get a second chance but the questions are different. Both are "open book" but anyone who has done taxes knows that some of the issues can be complex and 80% may not be an unreasonable score.

      But the point is, it does AARP no good to flunk potential volunteers.

      THey NEED them! But the IRS is pretty strict. If a given AARP site gets too many rejects, they can shut the entire site down.

      Oh, and about the software – all I can say is that in the world of software, perfection or flawless are foreign concepts!

      Oh, and ask the auto dealers about a "failure" to implement "good" software!

      Fairfax is a very large and sprawling system. If you look at their test scores, you'll see that they have a LOT of schools that are exemplary – in the 90% for grade 3 SOL reading. They also have some very low performing schools. So that's the reality. Because some of their kids do badly, is it a bad school system? Before you answer, look at some other districts like Henrico and Chesterfield – and Wake County where TMT lives. THe problems that Fairfax has are not unique to Fairfax.

  10. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    What should be the goal? Is it a grade? Or is it learning the material? If it is learning the material, then the grade is just a means of measuring how well one has learned. If one does not do well on a test or exam, why not give that person another chance to show that he or she has learned the material? Perhaps the student had a bad cold on test day. Perhaps he or she had a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend or parent the night before and did not get enough sleep. Perhaps the student did not understand the material well enough and needs more time. What is the harm in allowing the student to take a test or exam again (not the same test, but a different one on the same material)?

    As for the argument about preparing the student for later life, society is full of chances to re-take tests. If one fails a driving test, he can take it again. Most tests for the professions can be retaken–bar exams, medical boards, CPA exams, etc. The college entrance exam can be taken more than once, as can exams for graduate school, such as the MCAT, graduate record exam, etc. If a political candidate is defeated in an election, she can run again.

    Please note that I said nothing about lowering standards. The standards should remain the same; students should be given more than one shot at meeting the standard.

    I would treat homework differently. Homework should be a means for helping one to learn the material. Grades on homework should not constitute a significant part of a student's final grade. (If I got C's on all my homework assignments and then buckled down and studied and showed that I had learned the material and got an A on the exam, why should't I get an A for the course?) A student should be penalized for handing in homework late (without a valid excuse) and for not doing the homework at all.

    One example illustrates what I consider excellent teaching. My oldest grandson, who just completed his second year of college, took a course on the history of the British Empire last semester. At the end of the class, a major paper (at least 15 pages long) was due. The professor set the final due date, but allowed students to bring in drafts for his review and comment before the due date. My grandson took advantage of this offer several times. In efffect, he got to rewrite his paper, based on the teacher's preliminary "grade". That process increased his understanding of the material.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      I'm all for retakes. That is why God made summer school.

      Look Mr. Dick the sweathogs and jackpots are not going to study for the first test. Why should they when you can get an advanced peak at the test? Bomb the first time. Heck the lowest F you can get now is a 50% even if you refused to answer one question. Then take it the second time. Homework doesn't count anymore. No need to worry about missing days since there is a weak attendance policy. The second test is going to look like the first test. At best a teacher might have time to scramble the order of questions.

      I know your grandkids are good kids and are taking advantage of the retakes in the spirit intended. The inherent nature of most teenies is to bend the rules to serve themselves in the easiest manner possible. You would be surprised to find how many kids will not take the test a second time. Too damned lazy.

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