School board weighs in on grading system

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

David Hoisington has excelled in school. As a sophomore at Kenai Central High School, Hoisington already has taken geometry and plans to tackle trigonometry next year. He works hard to take advanced classes, looking forward to college.

For all his hard work, however, Hoisington's grade point average isn't at the top of his class. While some students boast perfect 4.0 GPAs, Hoisington's best efforts in his advanced classes yield only a 3.5.

Hoisington told Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board members the current grading system in the district one in which all grades in all classes are equal punishes students who take advanced courses and gives little incentive for students to challenge themselves in school.

"Most people coast through high school," he said. "There's not much advantage given for taking high-level classes."

Instead, Hoisington said he supports a "weighted grade" system, which board members discussed at a work session Monday afternoon.

Weighted grades are a system many school districts across the country and here in Alaska have adopted. Rather than using a traditional 4.0 scale for grades, some advanced classes have a 5.0 scale, meaning an A in an advanced class is worth more than an A in an average-level class.

The system the school board currently is considering would grant additional credit only for students who take certified Advanced Placement classes and sit for the national AP test.

School board member Sammy Crawford, a longtime supporter of weighted grades, explained the national standards established for Advanced Placement courses and tests provide definitive proof that the classes require extra effort. She added that the structure of such classes and tests, which focus heavily on writing, is proven to increase students' success in college.

Crawford said she believes giving extra credit for these classes would help students in the competition for college admission and scholarships.

"The main thing weighted grades do is help with college admission and national scholarships," Crawford said.

She added that both Anchorage and Fairbanks schools use weighted grades systems, meaning students from these cities might look better on paper than Kenai Peninsula students. For example, an Anchorage or Fairbanks student who received As in advanced courses could have a 5.0 GPA, as compared to a Kenai Peninsula student who received As in the same courses and earned a 4.0 GPA.

Board member Margaret Gilman added that the weighted grade system could take away students' apprehension about earning a B in a harder class rather than an A in an easier class. A B on a nonweighted scale would bring a student's GPA down, while a weighted grade system would let a student earn a B in an Advanced Placement course and still have a 4.0 GPA.

While both Crawford and Gilman are strong proponents of weighted grades, though, the board as a whole had more questions.

A set of education articles about the subject provided to board members presented both pros and cons of the system for discussion. One problem with the system is that it drives up expectations and competition for all students. If some students are afforded an opportunity to earn a 5.0 grade point average, a 2.5 GPA looks even lower by comparison.

Furthermore, the system can pose challenges for both high school and college staffs. The KPBSD's proposed weighted grade system would be strict and based solely on AP classes and tests. However, various schools across the country use different systems for weighting grades. That means GPAs mean many different things, depending on where a student went to school.

However, one of the primary concerns raised by board members Monday had little to do with the philosophy of weighted grades. Rather, it dealt with equity among the district's schools.

Larger schools like KCHS, where Hoisington is a student, provide AP classes regularly. However, small schools that have fewer students and teachers cannot always provide such classes, therefore students at rural schools would be at a disadvantage, some board members said.

"I think our schools don't have the opportunity to take AP classes, and that would reduce the value of their grades," said Sunni Hilts, who represents schools on the east side of Kachemak Bay.

Administrators explained they are considering ways to deliver such classes to outlying schools through distance delivery online or video classes but technology continues to pose challenges.

"I want to support weighted grades, but I believe it's contingent on making sure all schools have the opportunity," agreed board member Debbie Holle.

Hilts, however, said the technological challenges do not have to be met before weighted grades are implemented. They just can't be forgotten.

She said she knows living in a rural community comes with a price.

"But I also want the most opportunity we can have," she said. "I'm in support (of weighted grades), but please address the equity issue with it. I'm not saying before it, but don't drop it."

Due to time constraints, board members were unable to finish the discussion of weighted grades. They plan to take the issue up again at another work session later this year.

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