Heavy issues: Schools, district discuss weighted grades for AP coursework

Posted: Sunday, November 08, 2009

For the majority of her 28 years as a teacher at Soldotna High, Sammy Crawford wanted to see the Advanced Placement courses she taught have weighted grades.

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Michelle Klaben gives a presentation to classmates in an Advanced Placement U.S. history course at Kenai Central High School last week. Some are questioning the extra weight Advanced Placement course grades receive.

It wasn't until four years after she was elected to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education and began to push the issue however, that it finally became policy in 2004.

Now weighted grades have come before the board again, and some are questioning whether the system is equitable.

At the board's Sept. 14 meeting a high school student from Homer addressed the board asking why she was receiving less credit for taking college courses than some of her cohorts who were taking AP courses.

The issue reared its head again at Kenai Central High in October when the site council chose to rewrite their valedictorian policy out of concern that some students had an unfair advantage over others by enrolling in AP courses at Soldotna High or online.

According to Jim Jump, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, grade weighting is an issue across much the country.

He's recently seen similar equity issues pop up in Virginia, where he works.

The problem however, is that colleges have had to learn to read between the lines when looking at students with weighted grades and are starting to pay less attention to a student's GPA as a result.

There are no national or even state standards on grade weighting.

Jump said that in many cases colleges will pay more attention to class ranking.

"If you have a student with a 4.0 that's barely in the top half of their class, you see how inflated the grades are," he said.

Herein lies a disconnect, he explained.

"I think, a lot of high schools are trying to move away from ranking students, and yet I think a lot of colleges will tell you it's more useful and will tell you where a student fits in that school group," he said.

Locally, class ranking attracts significant attention from college bound high school students because of the University of Alaska's rank-based Scholars Program. UA offers a 4-year, $11,000 scholarship to students who rank in the top 10 percent of each qualified high school graduating class.

Rewarding challenge

As an educator, Crawford, who represents Kalifonsky Beach, is an ardent fan of AP courses.

The AP Program, run by the College Board, offers college level courses in high schools nationally.

Students who enroll in these courses have the chance of earning college credit if they score high enough on the final exam and the college or university they attend approves of the course.

District high school students may take AP courses that are offered at their own high school or at others.

Crawford, helped to pioneer the AP program at Soldotna early in her career.

"One of the things I saw and heard when I first started was that courses were not preparing kids for college," Crawford said.

She said after her first year she had a former student return from Cornell University after his first year and tell her that most of his peers had taken AP courses. He said he felt unprepared for the classes he was taking compared to those who had completed an AP course.

She looked into it and ultimately launched an AP U.S. history class at Soldotna.

Crawford felt the AP students should be rewarded for their extra effort and they shouldn't have to jeopardize their GPA for taking a tougher class.

"I want to help our kids make good decisions," Crawford said. "Giving them weighted grades for a challenging course helps (kids) make that decision when they could easily skate on by."

As a board member she continued to advocate for weighted grades.

"Kids were working two, three, ten times as hard as other kids and learning tons," she said. "And they were penalized because the class was so hard it was real hard to get an 'A'."

In 2004 the district passed a policy stating that for each passing semester grade in an Advanced Placement course, 0.021 would be added to the student's cumulative grade point average.

Questions of equity

Since Crawford taught her first AP course, the district's offerings have widened, but not all area high schools offer the same number of AP courses.

According to Soldotna High principal Todd Syverson, his school offers AP language arts, government, calculus, U.S. history, biology every other year and this year for the first time, chemistry.

Alan Fields, principal at Kenai Central High, said his school has just two AP courses, U.S. history for juniors and an English literature for seniors. The comparatively limited offering at Kenai is based on staffing, Fields said. Soldotna has a higher ratio of teachers to students than Kenai, according to Fields, and that means more staff members are available to teach those courses.

In the past that hasn't spurred any issues, but this year for the first time, Fields said a large number of Kenai students are taking AP courses at Soldotna.

Additionally more students are paying to enroll in AP courses offered online. Students who take those courses have the potential to boost their GPA to a higher level than a student who only takes what's offered at Kenai Central.

This recently raised concern about how the valedictorian from Kenai will be chosen.

"There's an argument that if you're paying to take AP classes online or driving to another school than it's an unfair advantage economically over the other kids," Fields said.

As a result, Kenai's site council voted in October to change how they select their valedictorian.

Now any student who earns a GPA of a 4.0 out of 4.0 or higher and qualifies for the honors graduate program will be recommended to be a valedictorian.

"I'd rather have kids taking classes at (Kenai) than somewhere else," he said. "But I also want to offer them the rigor they need and make it available to them.

"It creates a lot of hard feelings and emotions if (a student) feels like, at their home school they've worked as hard as they can, and achieved at the highest level they can, but they're being surpassed by someone who took an online AP course or went to Soldotna."

He also has questions about the safety of students who are driving between the schools on a regular basis for courses.

"We're not trying to push kids to not to take those classes," he said. "We just don't want to create an unfair advantage for those that can afford to, versus those that can't."

Fields is hoping the board will take the issue back up again and thinks the policy may need changing.

"This was one of those unforeseeable things," he said. "It's worthy of taking a look at the policy. Is it still working? Is it still fair? Is it still accomplishing what we want it to accomplish?"

Earning college credit

The issue extends beyond determining valedictorian status at Kenai, though.

Some have questioned whether grades from actual college courses, such as those offered by Kenai Peninsula College, should be weighted as well.

With the present policy, a student enrolled in a college calculus class for example, would earn less toward their cumulative GPA than a student who earned the same grade in an AP calculus class.

Crawford argues this is fair for a number of reasons.

"I don't want to disparage KPC courses, but I've taught them, and they're not as rigorous as (AP courses)," she said.

She also believes this is justified by the fact that the AP courses are national, and all students must take the same final exam at the end.

"Because there's a national test there is some verification of what they're able to do. I really like that they're able to certify what they know."

She pointed out that taking an AP course does not guarantee college credit either.

"If a young person wants to take a course at KPC they will get college credit," she said. "In an AP course it's all based on one high stakes, three-hour test."

She also said she'd prefer to see students taking courses offered by the district rather than college courses.

"If courses are available in our high school I would like to see students to take those," she said.

At Monday's school board meeting District Superintendent Steve Atwater said he would research the issue by speaking with the high school administrators and return with his findings to the board at their Jan. 11 meeting.

He considers the issue to be divisive, but said discussion at the Monday meeting he leaned toward the value of AP courses.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com.

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