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A= 4.0, A= 4.5, A=5.0

Awarding an extra grade point for advanced classes has gotten out of hand, some say, charging that the policy discourages arts and sports activities, and hurts inner-city students. One district is tightening its policy, and UC may too.


TUSTIN — Alison Moody's 4.5 grade-point average suffered because of her dancing.

Four years on the dance team meant two class periods each year dedicated to practice. That's two grades of a mere 4.0, pulling down an average that otherwise would have been closer to 5.0.

"It's a little unfair," said Moody, 17, a Tustin High School graduate who heads to UCLA in the fall. "Those who don't do sports or other activities really benefit from the GPA system."

It's stories like this--students who see an A average, a 4.0, as a liability to avoid--that have a handful of educators working to curb one form of grade inflation.

"It's been called a curricular arms race, " University of California spokesman Terry Lightfoot said of the rush for bumped-up grade-point averages. "Manipulation of this grading system has caused us some concern."

This week, the UC regents will discuss cutting back on grades that go above 4.0. And Moody's former school district, Tustin Unified, recently pulled the reins on super-high scores.

Typically, schools reward an A earned in an Advanced Placement or honors class with a 5.0 grade, in recognition of the tougher work involved. A grade of B gets a 4.0 and so forth.

Such "weighted" grades have pumped more students into such courses to the point where, at some top-ranked schools such as Sunny Hills High in Fullerton, a 4.0 grade-point average is apt to be regarded as the mark of a merely competent student.

"The reality is, colleges expect students to be great in the classroom, and they are supposed to be the student body president, do volunteer work and be leaders," said Cynthia Martini, guidance counselor at Sunny Hills. The universities "are the ones driven by the numbers."

Still, Tustin's school board decided to eliminate the extra point given to a batch of advanced courses and reduced the number of classes labeled "honors." The goal is to prod students toward a fuller high school experience, according to Frank Southern, the district's director of secondary education.

"Some students are just taking weighted courses to raise their grade-point average and class rank," he said. "They feel compelled to take the courses rather than important extracurricular opportunities."

At this point, Tustin's move makes the district a little like a lone minnow swimming against a tidal wave of grade inflation. State education officials know of no other districts that have taken similar steps.

But the state's educational whale--the nine-campus University of California--might begin a swim in the same direction. UC's Board of Regents is reexamining its policy, dating back more than a decade, that grants an extra point to courses it has defined as "honors."

Ironically, it was UC's decision to grant the extra points that set off much of the demand for advanced classes in California. The policy was meant to encourage high school students to take challenging classes rather than easy ones in which they could get good grades without working as hard.

"It worked," said Jeanne Ludwig, senior policy analyst with the California Postsecondary Education Commission. "And it kind of surpassed everyone's imagination."

UC is reconsidering, however, as part of its exploration of ways to maintain an ethnically diverse student population now that affirmative action has been abolished in admissions. Some see the extra point system as giving an advantage to more affluent students whose schools offer more Advanced Placement courses.

But UC officials insist that, beyond the admissions controversy, there may be academic reasons to reconsider those 5.0 grades.

An ongoing UC study has found that students with weighted grade-point averages often don't keep up the high grades when they reach college. Students who came to UC with a weighted 4.0 average, for instance, were pulling 3.0 averages as college freshmen.

In contrast, students who took regular courses in high school generally earned college grades similar to their high school GPA, said Keith Widaman, chairman of the UC faculty committee that conducted the study.

"If students were doing equally well once they got to the university, then the extra point for honors and AP courses would be fully justified," he said. "But students are not getting grades as high as you would expect from these weighted GPAs."

Widaman, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside, also complained that some students enroll in AP courses to "get the benefits of an extra grade point," then never take the AP exam to demonstrate that they actually "learned something extra."

Though the UC regents will discuss the issue Thursday, Widaman's committee is not expected to issue its final report until December. At the moment, the panel is leaning toward recommending that honors and AP courses get only half a point of extra credit--for a possible 4.5, rather than a 5.0.


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