Should an A in advanced placement physics count more toward a student’s grade point average than one in basic math, physical education or choir?
Some Wichita students think so, and they asked superintendent John Allison to explain why the district does not employ a weighted grading system.
“Kids who take the more challenging classes, they should get somewhat rewarded for it,” said Mayra Dominguez, a student at West High School and a member of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, or SuperSAC.
This year’s council, which consists of representatives from each of the district’s high schools, met with Allison last week to discuss the pros and cons of weighted grade systems. The group plans to make a report to Wichita school board members, which could include a request to weight grades for the purpose of determining valedictorians or class rank.
In some schools, weighted grade systems give students a numerical advantage for grades earned in more rigorous courses, such as honors classes, advanced placement classes, classes for college credit or those that are part of the International Baccalaureate diploma program.
For example, when calculating a student’s grade-point average, an A in a higher-level course may be awarded a 4.5 or 5.0, while an A in a lower-level course is awarded the standard 4.0. Other systems calculate averages based on percentage grades rather than letter grades and give added weight to higher-level courses.
Wichita’s two Catholic high schools employ weighted grade systems. So do some suburban districts, including Goddard and Maize. The primary reason, officials say, is to encourage students to take rigorous classes and reward those who do by considering that when determining who is named valedictorian.
During a meeting of the SuperSAC group last week, Allison said weighted grade systems became popular and prevalent around 2005, but “that pendulum has swung back the opposite direction.”
Today, fewer high schools weight grades, because the systems are complex and controversial, Allison said. In addition, most colleges don’t base admission or scholarship decisions primarily on a student’s grade-point average or class rank, he said.
“When you get into the details, there’s just not an easy answer,” Allison said. “There’s no, ‘This is the way it’s done.’ For as many different school districts that have weighted GPAs, there are just as many ways in which they try to calculate them.”
Supporters of weighted grades say the system provides an incentive for students to challenge themselves academically, because lower grades in tougher courses do not affect their GPAs so adversely. They also argue that a student with a perfect grade-point average who takes less-challenging courses should not be valedictorian or salutatorian over a student with a slightly lower GPA but a more rigorous course load.
At Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, grades in honors and AP classes count more toward students’ overall averages than standard-level ones. Last year’s valedictorian had a 4.47 grade-point average.
“For our kids, it’s very competitive academically,” said principal Chris Bloomer.
“If we didn’t weight (grades), we could potentially have 30 kids that have a 4.0. … For a kid to walk out of here and say they were No. 1 is kind of a big deal.”
Where it gets tricky, Bloomer said, is determining which classes get weighted grades. Kapaun plans to add a Project Lead the Way pre-engineering class next year, so a panel will have to determine whether it merits the same weighting as honors- or AP-level classes.
“Every time we bring in a new class, we kind of have the same argument, because then where does it fit?” he said. “We want to make sure the teacher in the program is meeting the same standard that all of the other classes are meeting.”
Grade vs. learning
Opponents of weighted grades say the system may discourage students from taking valuable classes that are seldom weighted, such as art or music. Students enrolled in higher-level courses may not work as hard because they know a B is worth as much as an A in another course. Others say weighted grades reinforce academic or cultural divisions within a school or that they focus students on numerical scores rather than learning.
At his recent meeting with students, Allison noted that most colleges “even the playing field” among students by considering unweighted scores in core academic classes along with a number of other factors, such as standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and how many rigorous classes a student took compared with how many the school offered.
“It’s all equal in their eyes when they look at admissions,” he said.
The Wichita school board has considered weighted grade systems in the past. In the early 1990s, former board member Carol Rupe supported an effort to create a special grading system for students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at East High, arguing that the rigorous classes and concentration of so many high-achieving students at one school hurt students’ chances of getting into elite colleges.
Opponents of the plan said other tougher-than-normal classes should receive similar treatment and that good students at other high schools would be hamstrung in competition against IB students for the same colleges.
At the time, a deadlocked Wichita school board sent the proposal back to administrators for further study. It was not reintroduced.
Shawntel Shirkey, a student at South High, said she thinks weighted grades might encourage students to take risks and challenge themselves with higher-level classes.
“Right now you know that if you take that AP course, you might not get an A. And if being valedictorian is really important to you, you might not take that class because you don’t want to ruin your GPA,” she said. “Right now, it’s a de-motivator.”
Allison said data doesn’t show that to be the case.
“Most (students) don’t decide, ‘I’m going to take a general class for math vs. taking pre-calculus, because I want a little higher grade,’ ” he said. “What they found as they tracked it is, if I’m headed toward something I want to do that requires more math, I’m going to take more math, regardless of the GPA aspect.”
Keison Walker, a student at Northeast Magnet High School, said he thought weighted grades would be a simple way to reward high-achieving students. He didn’t realize how complex and controversial it can be, he said.
“I think more students need to know this stuff – what colleges look at and how all that works,” Walker said. “And they need to know it before high school.”