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OC HIGH: Student News & Views : Figuring Fine Points of GPA Can Be Weighty Matter

September 16, 1993|TRISHA GINSBURG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Trisha Ginsburg, a recent graduate of Los Alamitos High School, is a regular contributor to OC High.

There was a time when a student's grade-point average--GPA--was a pretty straightforward thing: 4 points for an A, 3 points for a B, 2 points for a C, 1 point for a D; none for failing a course.

No more.

Schools now use computers to calculate precisely each student's grade-point average, giving more weight to grades earned in tougher courses than in standard ones.

The introduction of a separate value--a "weighted" score--for grades in tougher advanced placement or honors courses has increased the complexity of figuring a GPA. Weighted honors classes often give an additional grade-point for each grade earned. For example, a student in an honors class may get 5 grade-points for an A, 4 for a B and 3 for a C.

While splitting hairs on a grade-point average means very little to some students, it makes all the difference to others. It is especially important to those who need to maintain a certain average in order to participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports, and to those who want to get into colleges with very strict entrance requirements.

Class ranking--and top honors such as valedictorian--can be based on slight GPA differences, with a student with a 4.85 outranking one with a 4.80.

The changes in how student achievement is ranked came about when school officials realized that students were avoiding honors courses because they did not want to risk a lower GPA.

A decade ago the Huntington Beach Union High School District, which includes Edison, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Westminster, Ocean View and Marina high schools, decided to analyze the achievement of the class of 1981.

"We were keenly disappointed with the results," personnel services director Dorothy Crutcher said. "We found capable students who didn't stretch themselves. The kids didn't want to take courses to be educated--they wanted to protect their grade-point averages because they thought numbers were more important than education."

The idea of weighting grade-point averages arose from this dilemma. Schools with few students in honors classes needed to provide an incentive that would motivate high achievers into taking harder classes.

The result is a two-tiered GPA--one weighted, with extra credit for honors courses factored into it; one un-weighted, giving a student's ranking without taking into account honors credits.

Confusion comes into play when a weighted GPA (generally higher) is not identified as such on a transcript or other record.

Honors classes are locally defined by a school or district, depending on the curriculum coordinators. Most schools award weighted points to Advanced Placement classes because they are nationally recognized, college-level courses that demand more work.

"When everybody hears I can get a 5.0 for straight A's, they're amazed," said Christine Johnson, 16, a senior at Huntington Beach High School. "But everybody applying to college has above a 4.0. It's so competitive, you sort of feel like you're still not doing enough. Now, it's expected of me to get higher."

Johnson intends to get a 5.0 this year with five Advanced Placement classes, and she is looking at Princeton University as one of her college choices.

Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid for Harvard University and Radcliffe College, says the GPA is "the place where we start making decisions about the application. In our situation, the idea of offering an incentive is to have a weighted system that offers a reward for students who challenge themselves; it certainly doesn't penalize them. Students who take more difficult courses are looked upon favorably. The whole reason to take difficult courses is to prepare for college."

Harvard and Radcliffe receive about 14,000 applications a year for about 2,000 openings.

However, students trying to compete in the tough college market can put too much emphasis on the weighted system.

The University of California system began weighting grades in 1986 as an incentive to applicants. Even so, James Dunning, director of admissions for UC Irvine, said that weighting grades "is not the best way to represent the student's program. It's better to look at the transcript, then the honors courses as individual experiences. We want them to have a schedule they can succeed in. A kid who takes an AP class in the senior year just to have it on record, then gets a D in that class, is really sad to see. An A or B in a lesser class is far better than a C, D or F in an honors class."

Colleges generally calculate grade points differently from high schools, which is a cause for confusion during the application process. "The problem is the tendency of students to over-report their grades on the application," Dunning said. "Students have made band and keyboarding into honors classes."

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