NEWS- Dumbing down? Proposed changes rile county parents

Libraries are usually reserved for quiet studying and reading, but on Monday, November 27, a group of parents disrupted the calm of the library at Albemarle High School. As Don Vale, the director of curriculum and instruction for Albemarle County, presented proposed changes to the high school curriculum, angry AHS parents accused him of trying to "dumb down" their kids' education.

"You're lowering standards," said one.

"You're raising a group of children who can't meet deadlines," said another.

"You're just changing numbers around to make it look like students have done better," said yet another.

"You're taking away lessons for life, because there's an agenda," said a fourth.

 Prompting the outcry are proposals to overhaul weighted grade point averages, lower the minimum passing grade, allowing students to substitute Standards of Learning test scores for final exam grades, and mandating that any failing grade on a test or assignment be designated "incomplete" until the student redoes the work and passes.     

Vale says the proposals– suggested by a steering committee he chaired– are designed to "close the achievement gap" between the best- and worst-performing high school students in the system.

"If you look at SOL scores among low-income, English-as second-language, minority, and special-education populations, you'll find there's inequity," he says. "We're trying to increase rigor and increase access to higher level classes."

But the parents aren't the only ones with a position on the proposals. As sleuthing County attorneys recently discovered, the State Code of Virginia addresses the issues. Vale announced at the beginning of the meeting that the committee's initial plan to do away with weighted GPAs died a'borning thanks to a state requirement that all advanced placement (AP) courses be weighted for computing the student's grade point average.

That rule is something for which Western Albemarle High School senior and steering committee member Liza Dunsmore is thankful.

"Weighted GPA and class rank is on every single college application," says Dunsmore, who is currently applying for admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UVA, Columbia, and Washington and Lee. "If you're not highly ranked in your class, you're not even considered competitive at some schools."

One proposal still under consideration is changing the county's grade range from the current seven points to ten, meaning an A would represent grades of 90-100 instead of the current 93-100; a D would drop from 69-76 to 60-69. 

Vale says the move is to be in line with grading scales used at UVA and PVCC, where some students take advanced courses. Standards would not be affected by the change, he says.

"The various groups we've talked with, including the teacher groups, say that quality work is quality work, and an A is going to be an A," he says. "I'd be very surprised if you saw a change in the distribution of grades."

Parent Alison Wilson suspects the change is part of an effort by the County is to fudge its figures.

"I think they're doing this so they can have the same numbers as Loudon County and Fairfax County schools," says Wilson, who has children at Albemarle High and Sutherland Middle. "This is the easy way to do it, since they're failing at doing it the hard way, which is motivating students to learn."

Another contentious proposal would allow students to substitute their SOL scores in place of a final exam, whether that student is taking a class at the honors level or the standard level.

Dunsmore says this would short-change some high achievers. "On the first day of my AP English class last year, we were given the SOL from a previous year, and all of the kids in the class passed it– no problem," she says.

Vale concedes that the SOL "does not reflect the honors level curriculum" but claims the change would motivate students in lower-level classes to step up their efforts.

"We've done this at Monticello High School," he says, "and using the SOL as a substitute has caused some students to work harder, and the scores have gone up."

MHS senior and steering committee member Britt Berringer says the effect has not been limited to standard and practical level classes. 

  "To get an A, you have to have an advanced pass rate, which means you can miss only one or two problems," says Berringer, an honors student. "It forces honors students to buckle down and take it seriously."

At Monday night's meeting, after Vale touted the benefits of Monticello's pilot program, another principal felt compelled to speak.

"I have to pipe up here," said AHS principal Matthew Haas. "We keep talking about Monticello, but we're the best school in the county. Last year, our SOL scores went up in 10 out of 11 tests without this. This is territory where you have to tread very carefully before implementing it in all the schools."

As controversial as those measures are, the most heated debate might hover over the proposal to have students repeat any failed test until they earn a passing grade. Vale says this is part of the county's commitment to leave no child behind, but critics decry the measure as discouraging students from making their best effort on the first try, knowing that any failing grade won't count.

"Say one student gets an F and another gets a D," one parent told Vale during the meeting. "Now say that student who got an F gets a C the next time. You're hurting the student who got the D."

Vale says he can't envision such a scenario. "The premise that a student would fail intentionally the first time because he knows he can take it again doesn't make sense," he says. 

How soon could these proposals come to a vote? According to Vale, Albemarle superintendent Pam Moran is performing "ongoing research," and she will ultimately decide what goes to the school board for a vote in 2007. If enacted, the changes could apply to next year's incoming class of freshmen.

Of the vehement reactions he's received from parents at meetings at the three high schools, Vale says he will take the feedback back to Moran and points out that the steering committee was composed of faculty, administrators, parents, and students. But ultimately he believes his committee has made good recommendations.

"If this isn't best practice, backed by research, it won't go forward," Vale says. "But I'm determined to keep coming back here until we show that it is."

Albemarle director of curriculum and instruction Don Vale says the changes are meant to "close the achievement gap" between the best- and worst-performing high school students.