Should GHS weight grades?

GUILDERLAND — Should the difficulty of high school courses be accounted for when figuring a student’s class rank? And should grades be boosted for students taking college-level courses?

The high school cabinet — made up of faculty, staff, administrators, and parents — has been wrestling with these questions for months. “We’ve spent hours and hours talking about it,” Principal Thomas Lutsic told the school board at its meeting last week.

The questions are important because grades and class rank can influence college admissions and scholarship awards.

“We could not come to a consensus,” said Lutsic of cabinet members. “It’s really a philosophical question.”

When it comes to “weighted grades,” that is, adding value to grades for harder courses, Lutsic said, some believe that, if students are appropriately placed, they are working just as hard in a Regents-level class as students taking an Advanced Placement college-level class.

Others feel that students taking more challenging courses should be credited with extra weight on their grades, he said.

In a weighted system, for instance, a student earning an “A” in an AP course may earn five points while a student in a Regents course getting an “A” would earn just the standard four points, thereby boosting the average of the student taking the college-level course. There are many different systems for weighting grades, with varied weights assigned to honors, advanced, and AP courses, and some systems where students determine which course will be weighted.

More than half of American high schools use some form of weighted grades, according to a 2000 study by Gail C. Downs.

In her paper, “Weighted Grades: A Conundrum for Secondary Schools,” Downs gives the real-life example of a student ranked 11th in a non-weighted system who became number 1 in a weighted system. The student had taken 10 Advanced Placement courses, resulting in a 3.850 grade-point average on a 4.0 system. His weighted grade-point average was 4.224 on a 4.0 system.

The Principals’ Partnership reviewed the literature on weighted grades, itemizing seven advantages and 10 disadvantages.

The advantages are: more students take rigorous courses, more challenging courses can be offered, it increases a student’s grade-point average and students taking more demanding courses get higher class rankings, students are more competitive with peers from other schools for first-choice and more elite college acceptance, they have a better chance of receiving more in scholarship monies, and it’s likely students will have higher self-esteem.

The disadvantages are: lack of consistency from school to school as to what courses are weighted and how much they are weighted; not all courses, even honors and AP courses, are equally demanding; it may send a message to those taking regular courses that their work is not as highly valued, which may lower self-esteem and attempts to strive for high grades; college admissions officers tend to look at overall grade-point averages and not if the grades had been weighted; and, if a student is afraid of getting a low grade in a more rigorous course, he or she make take a less demanding course in order to earn a higher grade.

Also: Tracking students could become more common; students at the lower academic end of the spectrum would not have equal opportunities to take a more engaging academic program; parents may litigate if they believe the system is hindering their children from equal access to the curriculum; smaller schools have fewer opportunities to offer a wide array of weighted and non-weighted courses; and fine-arts courses may not be taken because it is possible that a non-weighted grade will lower a student’s grade-point average.

Downs, in her study on weighted grades, gleaned this information from college admissions offices:

— A student’s grade-point average, rank in class, and the strength of the high school program weigh more heavily in the selection process than do SAT scores and extracurricular activities;

— Weighted grades are more important if the college is unfamiliar with the applicant’s school;

— Even if an applicant’s transcript shows honors and AP courses but the grades are not weighted, the majority of colleges and universities will not assign extra points; and

— In general, the majority of highly competitive colleges and universities indicated that students with weighted grades have an advantage.

Referring to a 1993 study by Norma R. Talley and Joan Isaac Mohr, which reported that 74 percent of surveyed private college admission directors said students with weighted grades have no advantage over students without them, Downs asserts that a comparison of students with the same basic transcript show that the student with weighted grades was chosen over the student with non-weighted grades 76 percent of the time.

“Although many college admissions directors state that students with weighted grades on their transcripts do not have an advantage,” Downs concludes, “admission results refute this claim. College admissions offices frequently do not assign added value for honors and AP courses on transcripts that report only non-weighted grades, placing those applicants at a disadvantage for admission and scholarships.”

The Guilderland High School guidance counselors are unanimous in their belief, Lutsic said, that colleges look at the strength or weight of a course, not a student’s cumulative average. “Colleges weight on their own,” he said, describing the counselors’ view.

The problem may be partly solved with a new computer program that allows the display of both weighted and non-weighted grades at the same time.

“We still have to use one for Honor Society, senior awards, sitting on the stage,” said Lutsic.

He was referring to the custom in recent years of having Guilderland’s top graduates be honored by sitting on the stage during the graduation ceremony while the vast majority of students literally look up to them. Guilderland does not reveal students’ class ranks and does not name a valedictorian or salutatorian. Rather, commencement speakers are chosen from a pool of submitted speeches.

Board member Rose Levy asked when parents would get the opportunity to address the board about the issue.

Board President Barbara Fraterrigo said that, using the district’s shared decision-making procedures, the decision would come through the building cabinet. “It’s not like it comes from on high,” she said.

Board member Catherine Barber asked if the building cabinet had ever discussed doing away with ranking entirely.

“I think a lot of people would be in favor of that,” answered Lutsic.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from superintendent Marie Wiles that Ian Rosenblum, deputy secretary of Education and Economic Opportunity, will visit the district on April 23, stopping at Guilderland Elementary School at 9 a.m. and then spending another hour at Farnsworth Middle School, starting at about 10 a.m.;

— Heard from Wiles that, barring future need for school cancellation, May 23 will be a holiday since the district used just two snow days this past winter;

— Heard congratulations for third-grade teacher Tracy Martone, nominated by News Channel 10 as the Teacher of the Week;

— Learned, from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, that Leonard Bopp, a Guilderland High School junior, received a Gold Key for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for his piece of flash fiction called “A Visit With My Father.” His story will now be judged for the top prize;

— Heard that the Elementary Art Show is on exhibit at the Guilderland Public Library through April 27;

— Reviewed policies on access to school district records and on spectator buses, on which the board will vote at a later meeting;

— Heard that voter registration will be held on May 8, 12, and 13 for residents who want to vote in the May 20 school board elections. On those dates, residents may register at the five elementary schools between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. or at the district office from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They may also register at the Albany County Board of Elections;

— Learned that petitions for those seeking a seat on the school board are due at the district office on or before April 21 at 5 p.m. Nominating petitions must have at least 56 signatures from qualified voters in the district;

— Extended the appointment of the Bonadio Group to provide independent audit services for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2014 at a cost of $22,000;

— Established the Caitlin Elizabeth Clancy Scholarship to recognize a graduating senior “who is extremely social and intuitive, involved in helping others, works to maintain a ‘B’ average, and will be pursuing higher education in the field of nursing.”

Clancy, a 2013 Guilderland High School graduate, was in her second semester as a nursing student at the State University of New York College at Brockport when she died unexpectedly on Feb. 17, 2014 from complications of diabetes; and

— Met in executive session to talk about the potential retirement of an employee, and matters leading to an employee’s potential discipline.

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