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Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Weighted Grades Pose Dilemmas in Some Schools

Weighted Grades Pose Dilemmas in Some Schools

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Cassie Davis has worked overtime at being the top student in her class at Highland High School in Nunn, Colo. Throughout her academic career, she ticked off graduation requirements a year or two ahead of her classmates and took as many honors and advanced classes as she could find. And, in the final months of school this year, while other seniors eased off the books with the pressure of college admissions behind them, Ms. Davis continued to take classes at the University of Northern Colorado.

Instead of the expected reward for her diligence, though, her aggressive pursuit of academic excellence may have worked against her. Because the weighted grading system at Ms. Davis' school discounts college credits, she dropped to No. 2 in her class and had to settle for being named salutatorian.

"I feel that Cassie's been cheated," her father, Jack Davis, said last week. "They have created a disincentive to pursuing [better academic] opportunities. There shouldn't be any negatives involved in going for the best education."

Weighted-grade policies have posed a dilemma for teachers and administrators for decades, and no more so than at this time of year when commencement closes in and students are pitted against one another in the race for class honors.

Rewarding students with extra points for taking a more challenging course, many educators say, serves not only as an incentive to take those courses but is fair as well. Yet, the practice is rife with inconsistency, often leading to confusion and seeming inequities.

For decades, organizations representing high school principals, guidance counselors, and college admissions officers have been pushing for more uniformity in grading policies.

Officials at the National Association of Secondary School Principals say a national policy would be difficult to formulate, much less gain adherents. For example, the National Honor Society, which the NASSP administers, provides little incentive to set a single policy because it requires only that students earn a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale to qualify for membership.

Whatever policy districts use, however, should be applied consistently and fairly for every student, said David Corts, the associate director of the organization's department of student activities.

Scaling Up

Still, an A often means something different from district to district.

Weighted grading can add to the disparity. Generally, weighted-grading policies use a 5.0 scale rather than the traditional 4.0 one. In many schools, for example, students who take the Advanced Placement classes offered by the New York City-based College Board or honors classes earn extra credit that counts toward their GPAs. Higher grade point averages, in turn, can help students get into their preferred colleges and secure scholarships.

Though not universal, the practice of giving extra weight in grading to students who take more difficult classes is widespread. About half the nation's high schools do. Those policies, too, can vary.

"Some schools don't do any weighting, some weight certain courses, and some only weight classes in senior year," said Patricia M. Riordan, the dean of admissions at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who surveyed nearly 2,200 high school principals on the subject several years ago. "Their policies are all over the gamut," she said. "There were a lot of inequities in terms of grades."

Transcript Travails

Colleges look favorably on students with high GPAs. But often, the numbers can be misleading, according to Joyce Smith, the executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va. A student with a 3.5 GPA at a school that doesn't give extra points for a challenging courseload may have taken it easy in lower-level courses, unlike another student with the same grades.

The inconsistency "makes the admissions office work harder to evaluate each student's credentials," Ms. Joyce said. "They have to look beyond the rankings at the students' courses, their involvement in student government or other academic activities, or essays."

For many large institutions, it is not feasible to scrutinize thousands of applications for the deeper meaning in a high school transcript, Ms. Riordan said.

"An admissions office could say that the grading policies are identified on the transcripts," she said. "But that is just lip service. They see a 3.5 and say, a 3.5 is a 3.5."

Rigorous Penalties

With weighted grades, students have the potential to achieve much higher grades, which may add polish to their college applications. That's what students in Carroll County, Md., hoped when they asked the school board to change the district's grading policy to allow the extra credit. The board voted unanimously last month to permit students to opt for weighted or nonweighted grades beginning next fall.

"Some students and parents had concerns that they might not be as competitive because other schools weighted the grades but we didn't," said Gregory C. Eckles, the district's director of secondary schools.

Weighted grades may also provide more incentive for students to push themselves harder academically, some students say. In an unweighted system, a student who knows he can do better in a regular class may not take honors classes for fear of getting lower grades.

Andy Howard, who will be a senior at Greenwood Community High School near Indianapolis in the fall, said his GPA has suffered for his decision to take honors English and calculus, which have earned him B's. In his class of 200 students, Mr. Howard is ranked 28th.

"There are a few people above me in rank who haven't taken honors courses. They just don't want to work," he said. "I could easily have gotten A's in regular English."

Valedictory Umbrella

The numbers game has become an increasingly touchy one. Battles with students and parents, which have periodically ended up in court, are causing many schools to stop ranking students or bestowing honorary titles. And weighted-grading systems have occasionally added to the quandary.

At one San Diego high school that applies weighted grades, administrators elected to crowd the 42 graduating students who earned a 4.0 or better under the title valedictorian rather than single one out.

Cassie Davis waged her own bitter fight with school administrators in Colorado to take what she felt was her rightful place on the podium as valedictorian at graduation this month. She failed because her 4.26 GPA was less than one-hundredth of a point behind the victor's.

Although district officials say Ms. Davis was treated fairly, they plan to review the unwritten grading policy as a result of her dispute.

"She chose to attend college pretty much full time, and the other kid surpassed her," said Fred Hase, the superintendent of the 877-student Ault-Highland district near Greeley.

Despite the outcome, Ms. Davis said she would not have altered her path. She has, after all, enough credits to start college in the fall as a sophomore. But her decision to take harder college courses, for which she received no extra credit, added a bit of tarnish to an otherwise gleaming academic record.

"It's not a serious injury, but it makes you feel bad that she was not recognized the way she should have been," Jack Davis remarked. "She has already figured out that there is a lot bigger stuff to worry about. But she got a crummy deal."

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 1,24

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