For the past year, the Board of Education has been reviewing whether to keep the school district’s current policy of not weighing grades or to institute a weighted grade system at Wilton High School. At Thursday night’s (March 10) BoE meeting, following extensive discussion and a board divided in its opinion, board member Chris Stroup suggested they postpone the vote on this policy issue until the next meeting, March 31 in order to take the time to review a very complex question.
[Read our article and tell us what you think in our poll at the end of the story.]
The Case Against Weighted Grades
Dr. Kevin Smith, superintendent of schools, served on the BoE Communications and Policy Committee with BoE chair Bruce Likly and vice chair Chris Finkelstein; their committee was charged with looking into the question of weighted grades. Of the three members on that Committee, Superintendent Smith was the lone voice against weighing grades
Smith opened the BoE’s discussion by reading a prepared statement in which he reviewed the available learning and ultimately supported maintaining the current grade policy. He explained that, in his view, “…transitioning to a weighted system is inconsistent with our vision for learning and teaching.” He noted that this issue has apparently been raised roughly every ten years. Smith drew his conclusion based on several factors: spending a significant amount of time reviewing available research; WHS’s college acceptance data; input from college admissions officers as well as from Dr. Matt Greene, a college admissions consultant (and Wilton parent); several different models of weighted systems; and feedback from teachers, students and parents.
Smith explained there is a perception among many students and parents that an unweighted grading system puts WHS students at a disadvantage in the college admissions process versus those from schools that use a weighted system. However, data indicates that the WHS students’ acceptance rate at Most/Highly Selective colleges in is line with the rates at New Canaan and other area schools that do use a weighted grade system. While he acknowledged that roughly 70-percent of high schools across the country use some form of grade weighting, there is no consistency as to which classes are weighted, by how much and how the weighting system is explained in student’s high school transcripts.
He summarized the benefits and drawbacks of both unweighted and weighted grading systems.
- The benefits he cited include clarity and transparency – an A is an A – and the fact that colleges take into account not only a student’s transcript, but also the type of courses taken, and the quality/reputation of his or her high school.
- The main drawback is that currently students may feel penalized by taking more rigorous courses and getting lower grades than their peers who take less rigorous courses and receive higher grades, resulting in students who may avoid taking honors or AP classes for fear that a lower grade in these courses will lower their overall GPA.
- Among the benefits of weighted grades, Smith suggested that a weighted grade system might encourage more students to take more rigorous courses as they would be rewarded with a GPA boost by doing so. He also noted that WHS could report both weighted and unweighted grades to colleges.
- As for drawbacks, however, some of the concerns he raised about weighted grades included discouraging students from taking electives (as these courses would presumably be weighted less than AP/Honors courses), and encouraging students to take courses for their perceived GPA advantage versus courses that match their interests or level of ability. He added that current enrollment in AP/Honors courses at WHS is already high.
Smith cited feedback from college admissions officers, including those at Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth and NYU. They reported that they look carefully at the profile of each applicant’s high school; that high school grades in college prep courses are a key factor in their admission decisions; and that overall, most felt Wilton students are not disadvantaged by an unweighted system. He also noted that WHS teachers appear unified in support of the current policy for many of the same reasons he outlined. Finally, he raised the issue of the complexity of how to construct a weighted system.
While he urged the board to retain the existing non-weighted grading system, he also acknowledged the need to ensure consistency of grading practices across a course taught by different teachers and across all courses, to review the grading scale and to ensure appropriate support for students and parents during the college admission process.
The Case For Weighted Grades
Finkelstein spoke on behalf of Likly and herself as the two members of the Communications and Policy Committee to voice support for adopting a weighted graded system.
One thing she said they found was that student athletes may be at a disadvantage in the college recruitment process because NCAA forms ask for a student’s GPA, but don’t take into consideration whether it is weighted or unweighted, or the difficulty of a student’s course load. What’s more, she and Likly believe that WHS students taking college level courses deserve to be rewarded with extra credit.
While she acknowledged that, as Smith said, college admissions officers canvassed stated that they deconstruct every transcript they receive and rebuild it based on their own metrics, Finkelstein mentioned that several admissions officers – speaking off the record – also admitted that applications with lower GPAs were often weeded out during very initial phases of the review process, before consideration of other factors.
Finkelstein pointed to the lack of a universally recognized scale for weighting grades as something that complicates the process, noting that some school districts use a 5.0 scale, others a 7.0 scale, some add a full grade letter bump for an AP class, while others only add extra credit if a student receives a score of at least a 3 on the AP exam.
After consideration of all the pros and cons, she and Likly felt that, without weighted grades, Wilton students will continue to submit transcripts with lower GPAs than their peers from other schools, and therefore they were recommending that the District adopt a weighted system.
Discussion and Disagreement
Among the remaining four BoE members, several others raised concerns about moving to a weighted grading system. Laura Schwemm, Glen Hemmerle and Lory Rothstein all supported keeping the district grading police as it stands now—to not weigh grades. That put the tally at two for weighing grades, and three against.
Rothstein made a statement at the meeting saying that while she was “strongly in favor” of a weighted grade system a year ago, but she has now changed her mind. In a statement emailed to GMW.com the day after the meeting, she made a different point altogether as to why she agreed with Smith in opposing any weighting.
“It bothers me that not one member of our faculty, staff, administration or counselors, has come forward in support of weighted grades. If I were to vote in favor of weighted grades, I feel that I would be creating a great obstacle for Dr. Smith to overcome still so young in his tenure here. When we hired him, I promised to support him, have his back, and help remove obstacles in his way, not create them. Doesn’t mean I always have to agree with him, but I do want him to succeed for the good of the whole school system,” she wrote.
Stroup was the only member who said he wasn’t ready to make a decision in favor of either plan, and said he wanted to review the opinions on both sides. He made a motion to postpone a vote until the next BoE meeting, scheduled for March 31, at 7 p.m. in the Wilton High School Professional Library. The board unanimously agreed to table the vote until then.
At the end of the meeting, the BoE invited additional public comment. Marianne Gustafson, a parent of two WHS graduates, spoke in support of weighted grades, explaining, “There is a difference between an A in PE and an A in Honors Chemistry.” She also expressed concern that students in Honors/AP classes were expected to do more independent work, a fact that should be recognized and rewarded with weighted grades.
Gustafson reported that admissions officers at Duke University told her they don’t have the time to recalculate students’ GPA’s. “WHS students compete against some of the best schools in the area. Colleges will only take a certain number of students from each high school, so why aren’t we presenting our students in the best light? We shouldn’t ask the colleges to decipher what [courses like] Humanities are worth.” As a solution, she recommended that WHS adopt both an unweighted and weighted GPA system.
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As the article states, the BOE has been reviewing this policy for nearly a year. Mr. Stroup needs another two weeks to review???? Our EDUCATORS made a clear case for not weighting grades. Why would we not listen to them regarding this issue?
As an aside I have had two children attend WHS. Both were admitted to top tier schools — must have been a fluke if you believe weighted grades make the difference.
I wish the above article would have included the full text of Ms. Schemm’s thoughtful statement :
A year ago, at our meeting in the Little Theater, I explained why I was against a weighted grading system. I do not believe that any class is “worth” more than another, and that every student at Wilton High School earns his or her grades. A child in Physical Sciences works as hard as a child in AP Physics.
I still believe this. During meetings and conversations over the past year, I only developed a stronger resolve to keep our system.
I’d like to remind the Board of Richard Elmore’s instructional core – a triangle that appears in many of Chuck’s presentations. The three angles are labeled “Content,” “Student” and “Teacher.” My simplified understanding of this core is that schools need to focus on all 3 pieces if teaching and learning is going to improve. I bring this up because I’d like to talk about the teachers at Wilton High, one of the three integral pieces to our instructional core.
We often acknowledge how important teachers are when it comes to our students’ education. The staff at Wilton High School is proud of their school and proud to be teachers there. Many of them have had experience with weighted grades: either as students or as parents or in previous jobs. They will acknowledge that if you are in a district that has always had a weighted-grading policy, you don’t think about it, it is the way things are. However, having worked or lived in Wilton, the faculty of Wilton High School is proud to teach in a district that does not weight grades. It is not just a question of making us unique, it is that we are a district that honors every student and every course at Wilton High School. Our teachers are proud of that, and many parents are too. For example, I had a conversation with someone who has lived in town for 25 years. Her children were in nursery school when the family moved here. “We learned right away that Wilton did not weight grades, we always knew that Wilton did not weigh grades, I have never supported weighting grades, and I still don’t. I’m proud to have sent my children kindergarten through 12th grade in such a district.” The faculty would agree with that. Many students would agree with that. One parent told me that she was proud that her children have never felt the sense of entitlement that their course work was worth more than anyone else’s. Her children would tell you that perhaps the students struggling in Algebra One were the ones who deserved weighted grades because the work and energy they put in was often far greater than that of students in higher-level classes.
Our district has brought Bill Preble into our schools to work on improving school climate. As a result, the high school and Middlebrook have student committees, in addition to faculty committees, that work on improving their schools. The Student Design Team at Wilton High School is actively working on building resilience and inclusivity and connectivity among the student population. Having heard the Design Team’s presentation at a faculty meeting, a young teacher contacted me and asked, “how can the District support and encourage the work of the Student Design Team at the same time it’s considering changing our grading system in a way that undermines the “all-for-one” spirit these kids are working for.”
Ann Paul emphasized this last point when she reported to the Teaching and Learning committee. Wilton schools pride themselves on the fact that we provide a quality education to students of every ability – imposing a weighted-grade system would be antithetical to the vision of inclusivity that we have been building. In fact, Ann pointed out, weighted grades would increase the distance between the students who fall at different ends of the range of abilities. The emphasis would become more on scoring points, and less on the learning experience.
Chuck and Kevin echo that when they discuss the vision of the Wilton Public Schools. Students and parents and the schools should focus on learning and achievement. Our district is not about sorting children into categories, it’s about providing the best learning experience we can.
Let’s continue to focus on the work we are doing. We have a clear vision. We have a great school system that we are making even stronger. Let’s celebrate our achievements.
Laura Schwemm, March 10, 2016
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