My turn: Is the school board's message to students 'dare to be average?'

Posted: Friday, July 01, 2005

Juneau School Board resistance to weighted grades for Advanced Placement courses in high school surprises me.

"Advanced Placement" refers to college-level courses that offer students an opportunity to earn college credits. In a district that claims to foster excellence in education, I would expect weighted grades to be embraced as a way to encourage students to challenge (and reward) themselves with rigorous classes.

Weighted grades would encourage students to take Advanced Placement courses by increasing the value of the letter grade students earn. That is, a "B" in an AP course is equivalent to an "A" in a regular course.

Resistance to weighted grades focuses on three issues:

The first issue is the impact on the Alaska Scholars Program. The University of Alaska awards scholarships to the top 10 percent of students in each Alaska high school graduating class. Opponents of weighted grades claim they could alter class standing by providing a way to earn "extra credit."

The truth is that grade-point average at the end of the junior year determines academic standing for the Alaska Scholars program and that students rarely take AP classes before their senior year. It is improbable that a junior who improves his or her GPA by taking AP classes is at the margin of those who qualify for the scholars program, so implementing weighted grades is unlikely to bump students from the scholars program.

Arguably, the current situation discriminates against students who take AP classes in their junior year and who lower their GPA by earning a B in those classes. These students could be excluded from the scholars program because they accepted an academic challenge.

The message is : "Improve your chances of success by setting lower goals." Is "dare to be average" the kind of message we want to convey to our students?

Another issue is the fairness to students who choose not to take AP classes. Opponents of weighted grades claim that they are designed to reward top achievers who are capable of earning "A"s in Advanced Placement classes.

The truth is that weighted grades are designed to encourage more students to challenge themselves with AP classes. Some top students avoid AP classes because they fear the possibility of lowering their grade-point average if they do not earn "A"s. Weighted grades provide a safety net along with an opportunity for enhanced education; a "B" in an AP class would not be fatal to that precious GPA.

If the potential for students to earn GPAs above 4.0 is seen as unfair to those who choose not to take AP classes, it is a simple matter to dictate that a student's cumulative GPA may not exceed 4.0.

Offering advanced placement courses is a financial issue. The district has resources to offer a limited number of courses. AP courses consume no more resources than regular courses, given the same number of students per class. If students avoid AP courses, the courses may not be filled to capacity and the per-student cost of AP courses may increase.

Presenting weighted grades as a financial problem implies that the proposal shifts scarce resources to an elite group of students at the expense of those less academically gifted.

The truth is that the financial argument supports the weighted grade proposal. The proposal encourages more students to take AP courses, thus making it more likely that courses are filled and costs remain on par with regular courses. Encouraging more students to enroll in AP courses will become more important as the student body is split between two high schools.

I encourage the School Board to take a hard look at the reasons half of all high schools across the country employ a weighted grade system for AP classes. Perhaps the School Board could implement weighted grades on a trial basis, with continuation based on how effectively weighted grades increase the number of students challenging themselves with more rigorous academics.

As a community, we need to offer an opportunity for our students, all students, to benefit from the challenges and rewards provided by pushing the envelope of learning.

• Sally Saddler is the parent of two Juneau students.

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