Are some 'A's' worth more than others?

Some parents want another grade-point scale for Advanced Placement courses

Posted: Monday, February 07, 2005

Kate Diebels, a junior at Juneau-Douglas High School, was reluctant to take two Advanced Placement courses this year because they're a hard "A" to earn.

She values learning for its own sake but she has to watch her grade-point average because selective colleges look for high GPAs.

Diebels is taking the courses anyway. But she thinks that giving a higher grade-point for Advanced Placement courses would encourage more students to try them.

"I wish I didn't have to think about GPA because it makes me feel so shallow ... but it's something colleges look at," added Electra Gardinier, a junior at JDHS.

The local extended-learning parent committee has asked the Juneau School Board to consider a different grade-point scale for Advanced Placement courses. A School Board committee expects to take up the proposal later this year.

Advanced Placement courses are college-level classes offered by specially trained teachers. At the end of the course, students can take a test from the College Board, the same entity that puts on the SATs, and earn advanced standing or even college credits in that subject matter.

Also, college admissions officers look favorably on Advanced Placement courses as a sign that the applicant was willing to be challenged.

And it is a challenge. Angela Thrower, a JDHS junior, said she spends two to two and a half hours a night studying her Advanced Placement biology textbook.

The grade-point scale at JDHS now runs from 0.0 for a failing grade to 4.0 for an "A." Students' grade-point averages are calculated by adding up their points and dividing them by the number of credits.

Under the proposal, an "A" in an Advanced Placement course would be worth 5.0 points; a "B," 4.0 points; and so on.

Proponents hope that students will be more willing to risk taking Advanced Placement courses if a "B" would still give them a 4.0 grade-point average, a traditional sign of excellence.

Supporters also hope that JDHS will offer more Advanced Placement courses as the demand rises.

The school now offers five standalone Advanced Placement courses, and three courses in which some of the students take an Advanced Placement curriculum. In all, 163 students - or about one in 10 at JDHS - are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.

The school had to cancel two Advanced Placement courses in the sciences because of low enrollments, interim Principal John Norman said. Some students are petitioning to be offered an Advanced Placement chemistry course next year, said Nick Miller, a junior.

It's important to build up the Advanced Placement program now as Juneau works toward opening a new high school in 2008, said Jan Rutherdale, a parent on the extended learning panel that came up with the proposal.

Once Juneau has two high schools, the pool of advanced students will be split, and it will be more difficult to fill Advanced Placement courses, some opponents of a second high school feared.

Nine of 24 students in Casady Herding's Advanced Placement course said Friday they have felt reluctant to take such courses. They overwhelmingly said it was indeed harder to get an "A" in one. All but one student, who wasn't available Friday for comment, supported weighted grades.

But there are concerns. If the school offers more Advanced Placement courses without adding to the faculty, what courses will be dropped? wondered Erik Lundquist, the head of the science department.

And how will colleges view JDHS students who have, say, a 3.5 grade-point average on a scale of five instead of four, he asked.

"I think it's a tradeoff," Lundquist said, because weighted grades penalize students who don't take Advanced Placement courses.

Nationally, other concerns have surfaced. Weighted grades may suggest that the work of students who aren't in Advanced Placement courses is less important, some Maryland school officials told Gail Downs, an education researcher at the University of Maine at Orono.

They also said weighted grades lower the class ranking of other students. Ranking is the basis of class valedictorians and some college scholarships.

The Juneau extended learning panel proposed that any student with a 4.0 and without a grade lower than "A" in regular courses still be named one of the valedictorians.

The University of Alaska offers free tuition to the top 10 percent of graduates in each high school in the state. Most schools determine the top 10 percent by using grade-point averages at the end of junior year, the university said.

Weighted averages could make it harder for students who don't take Advanced Placement courses to be in the top 10 percent.

But the current grade-point system disadvantages students who take Advanced Placement courses and get less than "A" grades, said Sally Saddler, a parent on the extended-learning panel.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District implemented a five-point scale for Advanced Placement courses this school year, but changed it even before the first grades came out because of a perceived disincentive.

The weighted system is a disadvantage to students who take more than the minimum number of courses needed to graduate, said Assistant Superintendent Sam Stewart.

In a very simple example, a student with "A" grades in two Advanced Placement classes would have a GPA of 5.0. A student with "A" grades in two Advanced Placement classes and an "A" in a regular course would have a GPA of 4.6.

Instead of a five-point scale, the Kenai Peninsula district adds a fraction of a grade point for any passing grade in an Advanced Placement class.

Students in Herding's Advanced Placement English course said weighted grades would help them compete nationally for admission to selective colleges and for scholarships, some of which are based entirely on GPAs.

But there's also a question about how college admissions officers really view weighted grades. Nearly all colleges simply unweight the grade-point averages to put everyone on a level playing field, said Mike Henry, who supervises secondary schools in Anchorage, which has had weighted grades for 15 years.

Henry supports weighted grades, and said Anchorage saw an immediate jump in enrollment in Advanced Placement courses when it implemented them.

About one in seven Anchorage high school students takes Advanced Placement courses.

But weighted grades are more valuable in inducing students to try hard courses than in getting them into selective colleges, Henry said. What matters to colleges are the students' scores on the College Board AP tests, he said.

Many high schools that weight grades for Advanced Placement courses do so only if the student takes the AP exam, said Trevor Packer, executive director of the College Board's Advanced Placement program.

Some colleges, such as Colorado College, don't recalculate weighted grade-point averages, said Ellen Goulding, associate director of admissions at the very selective school in Colorado Springs.

Weighting grades is a positive thing, she said, although admissions officers always look at the rigor of an applicant's high school courses anyway.

"My issue is weighted grades are, in and of themselves, more indicative of rigor than not doing it," she said.

A weighted grade acknowledges the work students do in Advanced Placement courses, Saddler said.

"Some people see it as something we're doing for advanced kids that others don't have," JDHS Principal Norman said. "Hey, we have to be about excellence. We've got to do things for all kids, including those who are doing really, really well. We've got to challenge them."

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