Grade Point Averages (page 4)
For students in high school, especially in their junior and senior years, class standing or “class rank” can be an important consideration. Remember Ann’s story from Chapter 1. Students and their parents can get very emotionally involved in a number that is not terribly meaningful in its own right. The power of the grade point average lies in its uses. Many high schools designate the top student in the class as “valedictorian” and invite him or her to make a speech at graduation. Some schools designate the student ranked second as salutatorian, and this person also sometimes speaks at graduation. Some colleges take class rank into consideration for admission and/or scholarship decisions.
The calculation of grade point averages will be a matter of district policy over which teachers will not have direct control. However, teachers will live with the consequences of that policy and will be the first point of contact for many students and parents with questions. Teachers should understand their district’s grade point policy and its implications. They should be able to describe it clearly to students and parents. Teachers may choose to argue for changes in policies they think are harmful to students.
Any system where there are “winners” and “losers” risks undermining the developmental intentions of education, not to mention risking political firestorms. But the various solutions people have offered have not been very helpful, either. One year, one district decided to designate all students above a certain high grade point average as “valedictorians,” and all 17 of them were seated on the graduation platform! This appeared a bit silly to the community.
In some school systems, class rank is computed by considering the scale A = 4.00, B = 3.00, C = 2.00, D = 1.00, F = 0.00, weighting each by the number of course credits each grade reflects (typically 1.0 for a high school academic course and sometimes 0.5 for electives that do not meet every day). But there are many variations on this theme. Sometimes the grade point average is updated for each report period; sometimes it is updated at the end of the year.
In other districts, honors or other advanced courses are given extra “weight.” “Weighted grading” is something of a misnomer, since every time you put together numbers they have weights, even if they’re all equal. So “unweighted grading,” mathematically speaking, is weighted grading where all the weights are ones. Nevertheless, in common parlance weighted grading usually means using some algorithm that allows advanced courses to pull up the grade point average. In some cases that means using a scale of A = 5.00, B = 4.00, C = 3.00, D = 2.00, and F = 0.00. In other cases it entails some kind of calculation system, as illustrated in the grading policy in Figure 7-6, where the 0–4 scale is multiplied by 1.25 for weighted grades. Talley and Mohr (1993) surveyed high schools and found that in 1990, 55.4% of the respondents in their national sample used some kind of weighted grading.
Several times I have been asked what I think of weighted grading. For me that’s a loaded question, since it assumes that grade point averages are a good idea in the first place. Grade point averages are not particularly reliable or valid measures of achievement constructs. Each student’s grade point average is made up of a slightly different selection of courses, some of which are harder than others. In fact, some of those courses would be harder for some students than others. A student who finds math and physics easy may have a difficult time with even an introductory-level foreign language course. A student who revels in advanced literature courses may have a difficult time even with Algebra I. The average of all of this is not really a valid measure of any clearly definable construct.
On the other hand, grade point averages can do a reasonably good job of predicting future grades (Young, 1993). Grade point averages are therefore a measure of “studenting” in some sense. At a broad level, college admissions decisions can be made using grade point averages as one measure. College admissions personnel prefer weighted grading, giving advanced courses more weight in grade point averages, over unweighted calculations of grade point averages (Talley, 1989; Talley & Mohr, 1991, 1993).
You will hear all sorts of anecdotes illustrating the fuss about weighted grading in the cases of individual students. For example, a high school principal told the story of a talented trombone player who wanted to take music as an elective course in his senior year. But he didn’t. He needed to use the spot in his schedule for a course with weighted grades, so that his grade point average would be higher and he could qualify for a more elite college. That story seems to argue for all course grade weights being equal. But then there is the fear that gifted students will not take challenging courses, preferring instead the “guaranteed” As, and high class rank, that would come with taking regular courses. That scenario argues in favor of weighted grading.
What to do? A wise school superintendent summed it up very well. “Any system you invent,” she said, “students will find a way to play it.” In a perfect world, there would be no grades. The best advice I can give for getting along in this imperfect world is to have grades reflect achievement of learning goals, to combine them in a way that has meaning for your district, and then be able to clearly communicate what that meaning is. If grades reflect learning goals, and if the curriculum enacted in teachers’ classes and lessons is aligned with the district’s curriculum, then the grades will at least be indicators of learning as defined by the district–which is arguably what districts should be obligated to provide (as opposed to character references or indicators of psychological traits). If the districts articulate what meaning is conveyed in their method of grade point averaging, at least teachers and administrators will be clear about how those grade point averages should be used. Thus, if you want a system where the valedictorian each year is likely to be an advanced-placement student, use weighted grading. If you want a system where the valedictorian is likely to be any student who achieved the learning goals set for him or her, use unweighted grading.
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