The FCPS retake policy: prioritizing grades on paper over true learning

According to our gradebooks, students worthy of 100’s measure up to 80’s, maximum

Sheoli Lele, Reporter

Two weeks ago, something I had been dreading —but also anticipating— since September became a reality: I earned a low enough grade on a math test to be eligible for a retake. As mandated by the county, my teacher repeated to me that I must first send him my test corrections, and of course, that I would only be able to earn up to 80%. 


Grades have come to represent an array of characteristics of a student, from diligence to time management, for college admissions counselors to ultimately look at. At their core, however, grades should reflect how much a student has learned. The county should allow test retake grades above 80% to be recorded as they are because 80% is a poor representation of a test taker’s effort and understanding.


The Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) protocol for retakes, cases in which a student earns a grade below 80% on a major assessment, limits retake grades to 80%, even if that student scores a 100% the second time. The amount of knowledge someone has garnered in a unit at the end of their retake is disregarded.  The grade that is a product of the retake is reflective of neither a student’s effort nor his or her knowledge on the subject matter. 


Teachers, to no fault of their own, give the impression that retaking a test has mostly to do with grade improvement when it is truly an occasion to fill in gaps in understanding. The prerequisite studying students do before their retakes— including the burdensome test corrections— is the “meat” of learning; retakes are simply a tool to measure that learning. 


In fact, what I like to call Langley’s “retake culture” has become so much about grades, that students who earn grades like 78% on major assessments are discouraged from retaking a test because it will not do much to elevate their current grades. With this thinking, hundreds of students per academic year miss out on crucial chances to enhance understanding—isn’t this what teachers aim to do in the classroom?


In essence, a retake is a pact between a student and a teacher that the student will put in the effort to improve his or her grasp on some material, in exchange for an opportunity to improve a number that will later be set out for judgment of the student’s ability. If someone’s grade improves, his or her teacher must change the first grade to accommodate the studying that made the first test differ from the second. 


It is easy to imagine that students who consistently earn grades close to 100% would protest others earning equivalent grades. But at the end of the day, isn’t studying for a class an endeavor of absorbing material? 


In a time when students dash to earn recognitions to buff up their resumes for the upcoming college application season, grades have taken on a new definition. They have strayed from reflecting understanding and improvement.


FCPS shoots the messenger of some very grave news: levels of substantive knowledge and comprehension in students plummet amid the pandemic, of which grades are mere symptoms. Yes, schools are taking action to help, but their help is misplaced: instead of encouraging learning, they offer to hide bad grades and to offer only a 50% penalty for work not attempted. 


It is not greedy for a student to want a higher grade in exchange for harder work. If FCPS began granting perfect scores to those who earned them after “failing” once, its students would become better versed with the material, and by extension, better global citizens. After all, it is now on record that the student has fully- or at least, more strongly- grasped what they did not initially- is this not reason for celebration?


If I earn a score worthy of praise in my AP Calculus test retake, I will deem it unfair to see an 80 on my SIS page. I would have put in hours of time doing math— not simply to increase the number on my student record, but to learn something. 


As far as the number on my SIS page is concerned, the maximum improvement in learning I could achieve is 2% points.