Path of Least Resistance

Spokane Public Schools looks at reworking a grading system that drives students into the easiest classes

A decade ago, when Steven Gering was principal at North Central High School, a student called a meeting with himself and the superintendent to call attention to an especially perverse incentive.

The perfect 4.0, Gering remembers her explaining, had a loophole: Take easy classes, and the path to becoming a valedictorian was a simple one. Take tough classes, and risk marring the perfection.

"Her point was that all the policies in the district are actually discouraging kids from taking challenges," Gering says. "Why would you take [Advanced Placement] Chemistry and get a B, when you can take regular chemistry to get an A?"

In the years since, the district has dramatically increased the number of AP classes available. But school board chair Jeff Bierman says there aren't many current incentives to push students to take those classes.

"My daughter had friends that decided not to take AP classes, because their parents told them, 'Don't take that, you want to have a high GPA,'" Bierman says. "There's nothing in our system that rewards students for taking that extra challenge."

Over the past few months, Spokane Public Schools' board of directors has been discussing several possible solutions. What if, for example, grades were weighted so an A in an AP course was worth a 5.0 instead of a 4.0? Or if teachers could use pluses or minuses? What if students who took plenty of difficult classes got a separate diploma? What if students taking challenging courses received special recognition during graduation ceremonies?

At Gonzaga University, Dean of Admissions Julie McCulloh and her staff have just finished the first read-through of about 3,000 applications from prospective students.

"We'll see applications from around 600 different high schools," McCulloh says. Some weigh grades on a five-point or 12-point scale. Others append supplemental transcripts or only offer percentages. At Gonzaga, like many colleges, the first thing they do is strip out all the gloss and rely on the basic 4.0 calculations.

Gonzaga then uses transcripts to create their own customized weighting system. The days of simple GPA/SAT charts are over, McCulloh says. Top colleges don't just look at volunteer hours, essays, test scores and GPAs: They dive down into transcripts, examining how many difficult classes students have taken. "We will give credit to students who take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate honors," McCulloh says.

After all, "Answers in the Tool Box," a 1999 landmark research study by the U.S. Department of Education, found the single best predictor of success in college was academic intensity and quality, "certainly not test scores, and certainly not class rank or grade point average."

"If a school provides a weighted GPA, we use it," says Greg Orwig, vice president of admissions at Whitworth University. If they don't, Whitworth has been using its own weighted GPA for the last three years.

At first, the fact that many colleges rely on their own weighted grading systems seems like an argument against districts creating their own: After all, why go to the trouble to do what most colleges are going to do anyway? Plus, by default, all Washington schools use unweighted grades on their official transcripts — any weighting has to take place on supplemental transcripts. The idea, board members explain, is that the weighted grading system isn't intended to show colleges the rigor of a student's courses, but to better communicate to students what colleges already look at.

(Coeur d'Alene Public Schools already weigh Advanced Placement courses on a 5-point scale — a student receiving a B in an AP course would still get a 4.0, for example, on her transcript.)

In December, the board tasked Gering to develop a possible grading policy that would allow teachers to modify letter grades with pluses and minuses, and would use weighted grades to determine class rankings. Still undecided: whether to award additional recognition to students with tougher course loads.

"Personally, I think it would be phenomenal," says Shadle Park senior Scott Hinshaw, student advisor to the school board. "Hopefully we can figure out something to do, as soon as possible." He says many of his fellow students all support rewarding students who take tough courses and want the details worked out expeditiously.

One area high school already has a system in place: Five years ago, North Central High School implemented a program called "Distinguished Scholars."

"We're asking kids to take bigger risks with their GPA," the current North Central Principal Steve Fisk says.

Students with straight A's are still recognized as valedictorians. But to be able to give a speech at graduation, students need to be a "distinguished valedictorian," with not only straight A's, but a challenging course load. Even students who get mostly B's are recognized and awarded if they take a lot of AP courses and score well on the test.

"The grades aren't the final weighted factor," Fisk says. "You could finish with a 3.3, and still be a 'distinguished scholar.'"

At Rogers High School, Principal Lori Wyborney says her school is moving toward also officially recognizing students who take the toughest courses with a separate diploma. The tricky part, however, is communicating those changes. There is already a slew of distinct cords celebrating different honors draped around necks at graduation ceremonies.

"It has been confusing," says Wyborney. "Honestly, the list of color cords right now, oh my God, it's 10 or more."

At Gonzaga, McCulloh raises another challenge.

"Students today are filling their hours with more coursework, with a busier schedule. ... They're academically ready for college," McCulloh says. "But we're seeing more anxiety on the college campus."

The focus purely on academics has replaced the social and emotional maturity that comes from first jobs or first failures, she worries. There are subtler things, beyond test scores, grades and transcripts, that are important for surviving college.

"Restoring balance for the high school years," McCulloh says, "is really important." ♦