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Texas Move to Tighten GPA Formula Sparks Backlash

By Catherine Gewertz — September 29, 2008 5 min read
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Texas is working on a formula that all high schools would have to use to calculate students’ grade point averages. But it is encountering strong resistance from educators who fear it could discourage teenagers from taking challenging courses.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees public colleges and universities, is expected to vote on the proposed rule at its Oct. 23 meeting. But the public-comment period leading up to the decision has been rife with opposition.

Raymund A. Paredes, the state’s commissioner of higher education, is leading the development of the new rule. He is responding to a law passed in June 2007 by the state legislature, which directed the board to develop a single formula for calculating high school GPAs “to ensure a uniform standard for admissions” by public colleges and universities.

His response is also designed to promote rigor in high school coursework. But critics question whether it will.

The proposal would require schools to compute GPAs by including only courses in English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and foreign languages. Grade point averages would have to be calculated on a four-point scale, with an extra point given only for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual-enrollment courses, which can permit college credit.

If adopted, the new rule would affect students who will be freshmen in the fall of 2009.

Experts who track high school policy said Texas could be breaking new ground in GPA calculation. Jennifer Dounay, the analyst who oversees the High School Policy Center at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said some states require that extra weight be given to honors, AP, IB, or dual-enrollment courses, but none go beyond that.

If adopted, Texas’ rule would force a significant change in many districts, which give added weight to honors, “pre-AP” and “pre-IB” courses. In those schools, a student who earns an A in honors English, for instance, gets five points factored into the GPA. Under the new method, that A would be worth only four points.

The proposal would also mean that a vast array of courses—from theater to career and technical education—would not count in a student’s GPA.

Admission Yardstick

The grades Texas students earn in music and other elective courses would not count in their grade point averages under a proposal to create a statewide formula for calculating GPAs. These students at Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, are shown in a 2006 rehearsal.

A lot rides on the change in Texas, where a 1997 law guaranteed admission to state universities for students who rank in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. Rank is dictated by students’ GPAs.

Mr. Paredes argues that honors, pre-AP and pre-IB courses should not get extra weight because their content and rigor vary from district to district and even from school to school.

The extra point in AP, IB, and dual-credit courses offers an incentive for students to try college-level work, he said. Allowing students to boost their GPAs with courses of questionable rigor undermines the larger goal of ensuring they are prepared for college and work, he said.

“I get concerned when families or school districts are more interested in pumping up grade point averages without making sure students receive the appropriate level of rigor,” he said in an interview last week.

Michael K. Orr, the associate director of college and school relations for the 48,000-student University of Texas at Austin, said the GPA has limited value in admission because it can only show how a student compares with others at a particular school. Using a uniform method could create “a common standard of measurement of success in high school” that could show how a student stacks up to those in other schools, he said.

Some educators worry, however, that removing extra grade weight for honors, pre-AP, and pre-IB courses will encourage students to avoid challenging themselves.

“These are 14- and 15-year-old kids. They take the easy track if it’s given to them,” said Cathy Bryce, the superintendent of the 6,300-student Highland Park Independent school district on Dallas’ northern edge. “How can I say, ‘Go ahead and take this, I know it’s harder, so you will probably get a worse grade, and you won’t have the advantage of added weight for your GPA, either.’ ”

Ms. Bryce worries that the policy undermines an important goal.

“The kids who take the easier track as freshmen and sophomores can get by easier and collect good grades. So we won’t have as many completing the rigorous tracks that make them better prepared for college,” she said. “Then we’re creating classes of kids that won’t be as likely to do well in college or complete it. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Local-Control Issue

Jacqueline Lain, the chief lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards, said many districts see the uniform GPA as an interference.

“School districts would prefer to have local control so they can incentivize kids to take courses their community feels are important for the students’ development,” she said.

One of the most widespread concerns about the proposed GPA rule is the elimination of career and technical education courses from the calculation.

Patty Quinzi, the legislative counsel for the Texas AFT, a 57,000-member state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the policy creates the “perverse incentive” of discouraging students from taking challenging courses that not only build academic skills, but prepare them for successful careers.

She cited a course at one high school that is team-taught by auto-shop and math teachers, in which students were applying calculus principles to auto mechanics, and an internship that allows students to build components for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“Ultimately, we are concerned with kids being career-ready, not just college-ready,” Ms. Quinzi said. “If the Higher Education Coordinating Board is not going to respect courses like this as core courses with strong substance, kids are never going to want to take them.”

She said the AFT is also concerned that excluding courses such as music from GPA calculations will make disengaged students even less inclined to show up. “Sometimes, courses like music are the only reason those kids come to school,” she said.

Mr. Paredes said he is still “tweaking” the list of courses he will recommend for inclusion in the GPA calculation. He said he will consider a wide range of courses, from Advanced Placement art to high-technology, and recommend for inclusion those that prepare students for university study.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2008 edition of Education Week as Texas Move to Tighten GPA Formula Sparks Backlash

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