EXCLUSIVE — Officials with Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools have taken steps to implement so-called “equitable grading” at Langley High School and other schools across the district in a bid to fight “institutional bias,” according to internal FCPS communications.
The district’s emails, obtained by local parents through a Freedom of Information Act request and exclusively shared with the Washington Examiner, detail efforts by high school principals across the district, especially officials at Langley High School in recent months, to adopt “equitable grading” practices, including by using federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase a book for a teacher summer reading club titled Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. The district and Langley administrators also denied the efforts were ongoing when a parent inquired.
The emails also revealed that efforts to implement “equitable grading” at all high schools under FCPS have been in motion for years, going back to 2015, with a notable acceleration in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools across the district remained closed well into the spring of 2021.
“Equitable grading” practices vary based on how the concept is implemented, but the primary stated goal of proponents is to combat “institutional bias” and eliminate racial disparities in grade outcomes through a variety of tactics. Among the least controversial is the removal of grade penalties for late assignments and the ability to retake or redo assignments, often on an unlimited basis.
But proponents of the novel grading practices also advocate the elimination of “zero grades” by using a 50-100 scale. Under that scale, a student cannot receive a grade lower than 50, even if the assignment was never submitted, thereby creating a much higher grade floor and enabling students to achieve passing grades more easily.
In an interview with Harvard Ed Magazine in 2019, the author of Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman, explained that the initiative had three primary elements it sought to achieve: “accuracy, bias-resistance, and intrinsic motivation.”
Grading, he said, should not consider extraneous factors such as student behavior but only “a student’s academic level of performance.”
“Grading practices must counteract institutional biases that have historically rewarded students with privilege and punished those without, and also must protect student grades from our own implicit biases,” he said. “Our grading must stop using points to reward or punish, but instead should teach students the connection between means of learning and the ends — how doing homework is valuable not because of how many points the teacher doles out, but because those actions improve a student’s learning.”
The interview with Feldman was circulated among Langley High School staff on June 7 by Lindsey Fischer, an instructional technology coach at the high school, who also sent her colleagues a podcast episode Feldman recorded with Harvard. Fisher again sent the link to the podcast three days later as an opportunity for “summer learning.”
The school’s flirtations with equitable grading eventually reached the ear of a parent, who emailed a Fairfax County school board member, saying she had heard that newly installed district Superintendent Michelle Reid was interested in the concept and that Langley High School had volunteered to pilot an equitable grading program.
The email was circulated among FCPS officials, who eventually contacted Langley Principal Kimberly Greer, who informed Assistant Superintendent Douglas Tyson that Langley High School did not have a pilot grading program but that “a group of teacher leaders” would be reading Feldman’s book. Separately, Greer informed the parent that “there is no truth to the rumor that Langley will be piloting a grading initiative for the school division.”
But omitted in Tyson and Greer’s emails was that the high school had purchased copies of Feldman’s book with federal coronavirus relief funds and that high schools districtwide had already taken steps to incorporate equitable grading.
In emails dated between May 10 and 12, Ellen Chien Hussain, an instructional coach at Langley High School, requested that the school district approve the purchase of a professional study program that used Feldman’s book with funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the federal coronavirus relief fund for K-12 schools.
“The purchase of the titles ‘Grading for Equity’ and ‘The Standards-Based Classroom’ will be resources for an expanded book study,” Hussain wrote in an email to district official Evangeline Petrich, adding that the program would “help facilitate discussions and professional learning for teachers.”
Two weeks later, on May 24, Hussain informed Greer that copies of Feldman’s book had arrived and that a fellow employee would send out a survey to gauge participation interest among the school’s teachers for the teacher book club, which had been dubbed “‘Langley Summer Professional Learning’ surrounding Grading for Equity.”
“With FCPSOn money we can have more teachers meet with us to learn too,” Hussain wrote, referencing the district’s technology-based plan FCPSOn, billed as the “transformation of learning for students and educators,” which the district website says “provides students with equitable access to meaningful learning experiences and technology to support their learning.” It was not immediately clear how the FCPSOn funds would be used for the teacher book club.
But while Greer denied that Langley is piloting a “grading initiative,” the concept of equitable grading appears to have been embraced by an unknown number of schools in the northern Virginia school district, with efforts dating as far back as 2015.
In a lengthy email to outgoing Superintendent Scott Brabrand on June 14, the FCPS High School Principals Association noted that “in 2015, FCPS Instructional Services began to renovate our grading system to be more reflective of standards of equity in grading,” which the association said “made advances” in the work of achieving equity in grading, an effort they said was further advanced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic forced us to move forward an even stronger commitment to equity for our students with the unilateral implementation of a revised late-work policy that recognized the need to help students with their school-home balance, the removal of the zero and the implementation of a 50-100 point scale,” the association said.
The Principals Association told Brabrand that they had committed to “a 3-year plan of school-level implementation which will the fourth year with all high schools in FCPS having equitable grading practices.”
“Schools who have already implemented these practices school-wide, have seen an increase in A’s and a significant decrease in D’s and F’s across all subgroups,” the group said. “Despite what some might posit, this change has resulted in real increases in student learning and not masking a lack of learning.”
The email did not specify which schools had already implemented the grading practices.
Brabrand, seemingly cognizant of the controversial nature of the overhauled grading strategy, told Jeffrey Litz, the principal of George Marshall High School, that there were “many layers to this issue.”
“This grading issue is so important but without mutual understanding and alignment, it can become another major division that this division cannot bear,” Brabrand wrote. “I think the collaboration we did during this pandemic on so many issues must continue on this issue of grading.”
In a statement to the Washington Examiner, the Fairfax County Parents Association blasted the district’s efforts to implement equitable grading, saying it “sounds like another unresearched experiment being run on our kids that is the product of a discussion where opposing views were shut out and interest groups citing thin empirical evidence reached a consensus.”
“When you discard points and grades, you also discard objective measures of learning, thereby allowing people to claim learning has happened when it has not,” the parent group said. “It once again raises the question of whether FCPS is committed to providing students with a high-quality, rigorous education, or whether their goal is simply making it look like students are receiving a high-quality, rigorous education.”
The association was particularly disturbed by Langley High School and the school district’s hesitation to share information about the initiatives with parents.
“The other troubling thing is the concerted effort to avoid letting parents know that a change in grading has occurred or is occurring. If the new grading system was so spectacular, one would think a school system would not hesitate to share the information with parents,” the organization said.
Fairfax County Public Schools acknowledged a request for comment from the Washington Examiner but did not provide a statement.