To weight or not to weight?

AP Biology

Combing through the over 40 years of Tiger Hi-Line archives, one issue stands out as timeless, repeatedly discussed and debated year after year after year. It has spanned countless Hi-Line staffs and many school administrations. The subject is weighted grades.

A weighted system is one that applies “weight,” or extra credit, to classes deemed more rigorous. There are many methods for weighting classes and even for deciding which ones will carry this weight. A common practice is to grade advanced classes on a 5-point scale. This means that a student earning a B in an advanced class receives the same grade as another student receiving an A in a regular class. In theory, it adds a powerful incentive for students to take more challenging coursework and reward those who succeed in difficult classes.

In reality, however, some question its merit.

“It is a complicated process and many schools seem to differ. The quote, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ seems to fit here. A weighted system would elevate all students and not further differentiate those near the top. In looking at our top 15-20 students, I’m not sure there is an accurate way to say one is better than another. They all take a number of classes that might qualify for a weighted grade,” CFHS principal Richard Powers said. “If a person takes one more weighted class instead of band, I’m not sure that would make them a better student. There are those who have one strength and maybe not another.”

There are additional concerns with instituting such a system.

“I believe it would be very difficult to establish a fair weighting system,” long-time professional educator and professor emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa Carl Bollwinkel said.

Students seem split on the issue. Some see weighting as simply an extension of current problems with grades.

“I feel it would definitely encourage more students to take harder classes and to not be as afraid that their GPA would suffer, but I think it would only make the problem (obsession with grades) worse,” CFHS senior Linden Terpstra said. “Students who take harder classes now would just push to get their GPA as high as possible and still not be happy while the ones who now get average grades in harder classes would not be happy because their GPA wasn’t as good as those above them.”

On the other side, some students feel it is time for a change.

“I think it’s a great idea that the school would be wise to incorporate in our school district if they want to prove they’re serious about reforming our district. Dr. Powers and other administrators have taken aggressive action to remain academically competitive with neighboring districts — Infinite Campus comes to mind immediately. Unfortunately, our grade weighting system has remained unexamined,” CFHS senior Mike Droste said.

Another consideration says, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“I’m not certain there is a problem with our current system. If there were we would have much greater push back from both schools and students,” Powers said. He then added, “I also believe that no system is perfect and/or fair for all students. It is a balance, what can help one can hurt another. We have tried to maintain the system that has been effective over the years.”

“A lot of people in the top of the class already are taking tough classes,” CFHS counselor Susan Langan added, summarizing her research on the subject a couple of years back.
Still, critics of the current system feel there is room for improvement.

“Over the past two decades the Advanced Placement system has become more and more ingrained into the Cedar Falls curriculum. This is a good thing for the school and students, and I hope more AP classes are added in the future, but the administration can’t ignore the fact that many of the classes being added to the curriculum are higher-level classes that simply shouldn’t be graded on the same 4-point scale that other classes merit,” Droste said.

One way to objectively analyze the debate lies in case studies. Around the state, there are multiple systems in place, yielding mixed results.

For many years, Burlington High School gave .5 more points for each grade in honors or AP classes. This meant that a B in such a class would amount to a 3.5, an A- 4.0, and so on.
“These points would be used only to determine rank, so students taking honors or AP classes would normally be higher in rank than students earning the same grades in average level classes,” Burlington High School counselor Nancy Clemenson explained.

Recently, however, the school moved away from such a scale, as it proved counterproductive in encouraging students to challenge themselves.

“We ended the practice because many students took only the minimum classes (48) and seldom took any class that was not an honors or AP class in order to remain in the top of the ranks,” Clemenson said. “It kept them from exploring other interests such as art, music and business classes for example.”

The impact weighting may have on enrollment in areas outside the core curriculum is a concern voiced by many.

“It may hurt our elective enrollments in art, band and journalism due to them not having a weighted option,” Powers explained. “We believe a comprehensive education is the best, not simply focusing on the core area.”

Some involved in these areas, however, question this notion.

“I don’t believe that students who are truly wanting to excel in those areas of art would be deterred by a weighted system,” CFHS art department head Lisa Klenske said. “We already require them to have an A or B in the beginning courses before being accepted into any of the advanced art courses. I get very few advanced students who aren’t serious about their art.”

Others question the notion that weighting harms the students not utilizing it.

“Art classes could still be graded on the same 4-point scale, and they could still graduate with the same 4.0 unweighted GPA that those who indulge in an AP-heavy curriculum could attain. The only difference a weighted system would present is a higher possible GPA total for those in higher-level classes. It provides an incentive to dedicated students without punishing those who aren’t as interested in AP courses.”

Additionally, under certain systems these courses could potentially be weighted.

“I would support a system that would allow certain advanced art classes to be weighted. I feel it’s up to the instructors to prove that the curriculum is worthy of being rated at a higher level,” Klenske added.

Slightly north of Burlington at Wilton High School the results of weighting have been more positive. Their system was originally instituted in response to student interest.

“We surveyed students over a two-year time period regarding the 0.333 GPA weighting being considered for AP scores. We asked if it would impact their decision to take an AP class, reduce their concern over a more rigorous course’s effect on class rankings, and also surveyed the AP students under the non-weighted system at that time,” Wilton High School counselor Charlene Paper said. “The results showed that a slight weighting would encourage some to attempt an AP class they may not have chosen before, while others reported they would have taken the AP courses regardless.”

Paper admits that the effects of this method are relatively small. As they currently only offer three-year-long AP classes, the maximum GPA is roughly 4.05. But, as Paper explained, it still can “shuffle some of the rankings.”

But the effects extend beyond class rank.

“For students wanting to maintain a very high GPA, it does provide a ‘cushion’ that an A- counts as an A or if you get a B+, it doesn’t drop your GPA as much. Students have the opportunity to re-earn a 4.00, with a previous A- or B+ in a couple classes with A’s in AP classes. The weighting acknowledges the higher level of difficulty and rigor in our AP offerings,” Paper said.

There are still some kinks in Wilton’s weighting method, however.

“We have a few other senior courses that students report as equally challenging as AP courses, but are not weighted. We chose to limit the weighting to the AP courses, with the standardized College Board curriculum they must follow,” Paper said.

Still, though, on the whole the weighted system has been positive for the school and its upper-level classes.
“We have seen increased interest and enrollments in AP class,” Paper said.

Debate on the topic tends to open a Pandora ’s Box of questions about fundamental components of today’s educational system.

“Is the main purpose of high school to attain a high GPA? Should science students be required to take more courses in other areas so as to gain a more rounded high school education? Should class ranking be based on other things than GPA? Should class rank be very important?” Bollwinkel asked.

The over-simplifying of student analysis was a common concern.

“I believe grades are only one measure, as is a test score. One test on one day does not define a person. It is simply another measure,” Powers said.

Stepping outside the debate, though, most agree that the pursuit of challenging coursework carries long-term benefits regardless of the credit given.

“If you don’t do it (challenge yourself) now, you’re gonna pay later,” Langan said.

But for now, debate on weighting will continue.


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