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Is America's best school too good for grade point bonuses?

Note to readers: Thursday the Post launches its new Local Living section, which will include a bonus Class Struggle column each week from me. That means my weekly Thursday Extra Credit column answering reader questions is no more, since the Thursday Extra sections have gone to newspaper paradise, never to be seen again. But cheer up, I will still answer reader questions here on this blog. Just send them, as usual, to
Here is my first column for Local Living. It has a big surprise for the many who keep a close eye on America's best, and in some ways weirdest, high school, Thomas Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has the highest SAT scores in the country and probably is the best high school in many other ways. But is it too good for the rules that govern the other high schools in Fairfax County?

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale will decide by January, officials say, on a controversy about honors and college-level courses that could give Jefferson a different grading system from the rest of the district and influence the way Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are dealt with everywhere else.

The argument began with the frustrated dreams of Jefferson teachers who want to create courses that are even more challenging than AP and IB (for which students can receive college credit if they score well on independently written and scored exams). Fifteen years ago, Jefferson AP government teacher Jay Lamb devised a special version of AP government with the help of English teacher Pat Curtis and geosystems teacher Russ Fazio. Jefferson students are admitted largely on the strength of grades, test scores and other middle school successes. They loved the challenge of weaving the three subjects into an environmental theme, even if much of it did not relate to the AP exam.

Yet the teachers discovered that such experiments were unlikely to go much further. Seventy percent of the students said in a survey that if they had not gotten extra grade-point credit for its being an AP course, they would not have enrolled.

At Jefferson, as at nearly every other high-performing high school, AP or its European immigrant cousin, IB, rules. Although selective college admissions officials don’t say so out loud, they require that students take AP or IB or have a good reason why they don’t. Interdisciplinary courses are fairly common in lower grades but hard to sell to juniors and seniors who can take AP. AP demands that teachers cover the material on AP exams that they do not write. If they abandon the AP label, not enough students will sign up for their courses because they won’t get the extra grade points.

Fairfax County changed its grading systems lately after parents complained that its definition of an A — 94 to 100 percent — meant lower grade-point averages than in districts with the standard 90 to 100 percent A. That change created an opening for Jefferson teachers who want to put their homemade courses on the same level as AP by altering the bonus point system.

Peter Noonan, Fairfax County’s assistant superintendent for instructional services, described two possible options that rip Jefferson out of the county grading system. At the moment, all Fairfax County schools give an extra grade point to a student who completes an AP or IB class. If the final grade is a B, or 3.0 in the standard system, the student gets a 4.0. Honors courses in the core subjects of science, math, social studies and science get an extra half grade point.

Under one suggested option for Jefferson, no course grades would be weighted. Jefferson, and only Jefferson, would return to the long-forgotten system of my generation, when a C was a 2.0 and grade-point bonuses were unimaginable. This would be a shock to Jefferson students and parents but probably do little harm because Jefferson students already wear halos in the eyes of college admissions officers. This option would help teachers who want to lure students away from AP and to their homemade courses because AP would no longer have the extra grade point.

The other possible option anticipates the objections of Jefferson people worried about college admissions. The school would no longer give grade bonuses for courses but would raise every student’s grade-point average by half a point. One Fairfax County official, asked whether this would give Jefferson students an unfair advantage over other county schools, said a South Lakes High student last year got the county’s top GPA, 4.58, higher than the maximum 4.5 Jefferson students could get.

These are, to say the least, breathtaking changes in the way Jefferson operates. That means many people won’t like them. The no-weighting option will be scary for students and parents who don’t understand the strength of the school’s national reputation. Some Jefferson parents are complaining that even the half-point bonus plan is bad because it would not reward Jefferson students who take the hardest courses.

No one involved is sure what will happen. Other options might emerge. There are high schools throughout the country with teachers looking for ways to compete with AP or IB for student attention. If Jefferson, the great science school, succeeds in its experiment with a downsized grade-point system, other places are likely to try it, bringing even more notice to the best high school in America.

By Jay Mathews  | October 22, 2009; 2:00 AM ET
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I think there are much clearer examples of the TJ weighting problem than the crazy interdisciplinary course cited in the article. For example, TJ has two years of post-Calculus math courses; it makes little sense for AP Calculus to be given a higher weight than Multivariable Calculus or Differential Equations. It's these "post-AP" courses which have an AP as a prereq that almost certainly deserve at least as much weighting as the AP course they follow.

The two weighting schemes being considered are almost certainly not ideal, but they do solve another problem at TJ. For a student with a weighted GPA above 4.0, getting an A in a non-weighted course obviously decreases their GPA. There have been examples of TJ students who have either avoided taking non-weighted courses like Band or have used the little-known FCPS Pass-Fail status request to avoid the As in such courses negatively impacting their GPA.

The idea of weighting AP courses in general doesn't make a whole lot of sense, if the weights among the AP courses are equal. Some AP courses are way, way harder than other AP courses. In some cases, the College Board even designs them that way: Calculus AB is designed to be an easier subset of the material in Calculus BC. Many schools (including TJ) offer both versions of such courses, so the argument that an AP is an AP and all deserve an equal extra weight seems to fall a little flat.

Posted by: engineeringprof | October 22, 2009 4:08 AM | Report abuse

I'd love to think that discussions and debates around this topic would help folks see the arbitrary nature of grades as we use them now. If grades are meant to communicate progress to parents they do not do a very good job. An A in a class has little meaning (especially when it can vary quite a bit from teacher to teacher, school to school, district to district). Rather than debate tweaking this system we should be thinking on a grander scale of ways to completely begin again.

Posted by: Jenny04 | October 22, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

great posts. it may be time for a column on whether weighting AP or IB makes sense at all.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 22, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

This kind of reminds me of "This is Spinal Tap". Why do GPAs go over 4? Because they can. If an A+ is 4.0, what's a 4.5?

Posted by: pppp1 | October 22, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I'd vote for doing away with weighted grades, entirely.

What's the point of weighting grades, anyhow? To reward kids for taking harder courses? When I was in school, it was much easier to get an A in band than in standard chemistry, but there was no weighting for either course.

And since when are AP courses hard? When I was a kid and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the standard courses were more difficult because I found the uncontrollable urge to gouge my eyes out with a pitchfork to be a distraction to my studies.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 22, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

The current FCPS honors weighting is not reported accurately -- it may have been merely a typo. English core courses also receive a .5 along with those in math, social studies and science.

Posted by: catherinecolglazier | October 22, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Both systems are riddled with fundamental flaws and I am appalled that school officials with any experience are even suggesting their implementation.

The fundamental issue with the first solution, where no classes are weighted, is that GPAs will simply be lower at TJ than they are around the county and country. You seem to believe that the "national reputation" of Thomas Jefferson High School will make up the perception difference. In this, you are flat out wrong.

First we must recognize that high school grades are not used merely for college applications. Scholarship and internship or equivalently various part time job, selection teams utilize these numbers as well. These two often give far less attention to the application as a whole, and thus concentrate on the concrete numbers, SATs and grades. The straight numbers here are thus much more important. A 4.2 will be viewed better a 3.7, no matter what.

Thus, by implementing this system, you simply put your own students at an unfair disadvantage in certain applications. In no application will they be helped.

The second "solution" appears to rectify this issue. However, it is fundamentally flawed in that it rewards students for taking easier classes (or easy A classes). Additionally, it is plain faced grade inflation, a policy that will be noticed by some schools that are familiar with TJ.

(As an aside, I would believe that schools such as UVA or William and Mary who are intimately familiar with TJ will probably sort out the issue internally, but schools such as Yale and Columbia, who probably pay some attention to TJ who might stumble across this article but don't have a more personal relationship with guidance at TJ, and further are predisposed to disliking TJ, will certainly be vindicated in their decisions to downrank TJ students).

Across the board grade inflation does not work; if it did, everyone school would be neglectful not to inflate their students grades to the maximum extent allowable.

The only solution is simply the present system. A few tweaks may be required, and allowing teachers who teach courses at an advanced (college) level to give those courses the additional weighting points would be the most equitable, logical and pragmatic solution.

(This system has always been in place, I am not sure how it was changed to become as deranged as it is now.)

Posted by: quandary87 | October 22, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

good catch catherine. I had science in there twice, and the editor just deleted one of the sciences, forgetting about english. dumb of me.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 22, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

There's a much better answer than the options described in this article. Start with the fundamental principle that drives weighting policies around the United States and in the FCPS base high schools - which is that courses should be weighted based on comparative difficulty. Then apply that principle to TJ courses, so that TJ's unique college-level courses (such as computational physics, DNA Science and the like) are weighted as much as AP courses. Undo the bizarre non-decision (nobody admits to making this one) to never weight TJ's summer school courses, even though some are more challenging than their school-year counterparts. And then figure out down the road what other TJ courses should be weighted as honors, if they aren't already weighted.

A School Board member has told me that the Board wants the TJ community to decide what's best. If that's true, then I think the option I describe above would be endorsed by well over half the parents and students, provided that they were provided with accurate information about all the options on the table, and their potential ramifications.

Posted by: LouiseEpstein2 | October 22, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

TJ is such a one-off, cream skimming, sui generis place that trying to related GPAs achieved there with the rest of FFC schools is a fool’s errand. Let those who run TJ do whatever they like.

TJ students will take their own measure of the program being offered and do what they feel is in their best interest wrt college admission. Nothing that TJ does affects FFC students in the “plebian” high schools one iota. TJ might as well be on Mars wrt the college admission possibilities for the remainder of FFC studentss.

Good example of a non-problem.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | October 22, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

I won't claim the essentially "return to status quo" solution presented above by LouiseEpstein2 wouldn't be popular with the TJ community. However, absent some reasonable way of measuring the "relative difficulty" of TJ courses, it seems to impose an arbitrary, pornography-esque "I know it when I see it" set of incentives for students to prefer one set of courses over another. And TJ students being TJ students, I think it's unreasonable to expect that such an incentive system won't influence course selections.

For example, how would one go about determining the "relative difficulty" of things like Analog Microelectronics, Video Tech, and Artificial Intelligence? I think all of the obvious metrics fail pretty badly:

1) You can't use whether it's a college-level class. First, there's no such thing as "college-level;" the material in Analog Microelectronics would be considered a reasonable entry level course at some schools, but would be laughed out of the room at others. Even trying to select some sort of "average college" for comparison leads to other problems. For example, many average colleges offer a course called "College Algebra" that despite having the word college in the title is really just high-school Algebra II, not the Abstract Algebra trio of group, ring, and Galois theories. I don't think many people would be in favor of weighting Algebra II. Similarly, many colleges have Physical Education requirements that are no more difficult than TJ Gym.

2) You can't use whether an AP is a prereq. If you did, e.g., some techlabs would get a boost and other wouldn't, in some cases based only on whether the College Board has bothered to make an appropriate AP test.

3) You can't just ask TJ students or teachers what classes are hard. This has some promise, but could lead to unintended consequences. If a majority of TJ students (who, remember, were selected based partially on mathematical ability) say that pre-AP Spanish is more difficult for them than AP Calculus, is the solution to resolving this inconsistency unweighting AP Calculus?

4) Doing some fancy statistical analysis of something like grade distributions fails for things like grade curving, new classes, and teacher changes. And, even at TJ, it's likely hard to get people to buy into a complex statistical model, no matter how well designed it is to deal with things like student self selection of courses.

Of course, it's also worth noting that with the two proposals in the original article, the lack of any per-course incentives might drive students to take easier classes. But, rather than impose an arbitrary ranking of difficulty on all courses, it seems that this could be better solved by curving each course individually, ideally with a curve that doesn't discourage things like collaboration within classes. Students still wouldn't be able to get above an A, but it would remove much of the disincentive to take a harder course that actually interests them.

Posted by: engineeringprof | October 22, 2009 9:08 PM | Report abuse

When I attended TJ in the 1990's, there were no "honors" classes, because all the classes were considered "honors." Therefore, students could not receive 0.5 GPA points for taking an "honors" class, like other Fairfax County students. In addition, AP classes only received a 0.5 GPA point boost (not the 1.0 GPA point mentioned in this article). Either the policy has changed since I attended TJ, or the article is wrong on this point.

In any event, attending TJ definitely had a negative impact on my GPA (compared to if I had attended my base high school). The average TJ GPA for my graduating class was about 3.7, even though our average SAT scores were as high or higher than every college in the country except MIT. At our base schools, we probably would have had GPA's in the 4.0 to 4.5 range.

This doesn't mean that students concerned about college admission shouldn't attend TJ - but it is a factor to be considered. At least when I attended, most TJ grads went to UVA, VA Tech or William and Mary. Few (relatively speaking) attended Ivy's. This could be in part b/c many Ivy League schools aren't familiar enough w/ TJ to understand that a 3.7 GPA at TJ is really the equivalent of a significantly higher at a normal high school.

Posted by: AttorneyDC | October 23, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

As a 2002 graduate of TJ, I disagree with the statement regarding parental and student concerns that TJ's reputation with provide students with the necessary credentials to enter selective universities. When I applied to Penn State (with a 3.3 GPA and 1430 SATs), I was told that with every student, they use GPA and SAT score to determine whether a student will be placed on the main campus or a satellite campus. In the words of the admissions counselor, "we don't give a hoot where you went to high school."

Posted by: jkbeutler | October 23, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I find the weighting to be problematic in that it discourages students from taking fine and performing arts classes, which are already discouraged by guidance counselors and the requirement of taking computer science before junior year (which necessitates summer school if one takes a music or art class both sophomore and junior years). As a senior last year, I was involved in the difficult battle to ensure that TJ's choir director would continue to have a full time job. While this was successful, our wonderful choir director, Luke Frels, got so fed up by the lack of support he felt from the administration and applied for a position as choir director at Fairfax High School and left TJ to teach there. Alumni and current students alike were very upset at this loss. I know that TJ is a school for science and technology, but should this really be at the expense of the arts? (Sorry that was a bit of a rant, but it's something I feel strongly about.)

Also, I feel the need to disagree with what some people have said about college admissions. One person said that "few" TJ grads attended ivies. However, compared to most schools, even magnet schools, TJ has a lot of students going to ivies. Second, you have to compare this to how many applied, and how many got in. I know of cases where people either chose not to apply to ivies, or got in but chose not to go, either because they didn't want the pressure, or for financial reasons.

Also to say that the Virginia schools understand TJ while others do not is not necessarily accurate. TJ sends its profile to all schools where students apply, and I am fairly certain admissions officers are at least vaguely familiar with US News & World Report. Finally, if UVA is so familiar with TJ's situation while out-of-state schools are much less so, please explain to me how I got waitlisted at UVA but got into UNC-CH.

Posted by: isfturtle | October 23, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

I am a late 90's graduate of Jefferson as well.

[As an aside, thank you, AttorneyDC, for commenting on the previous grading policy. Indeed, either the policy has changed or the article is wrong. I thought I was crazy for a second there. If you recognize my name, please contact me.]

I concur with the suggestion that Jefferson be allowed to conduct its affairs as it sees fit. The school's success is in large measure due to its unique culture, and that culture is in turn heavily based on exceptionalism. That only works because it is justified. To paraphrase Orson Scott Card, accurate self-assessment for Jefferson students might seem like egotism. Freshmen arriving there are by design already among the top few percent of one of the best (and 12th largest, says school systems in the country, and are pushed much, much farther
ahead of their peers by the unparalleled rigor of the curriculum there.

Mr. Mathews is completely wrong, however, in his glowing estimate of the ease with which graduates are accepted into elite out-of-state universities. The tragic irony of life as a Jefferson student is that most middling-at-TJ students would have been more likely to be accepted at, yet less prepared for, an elite college armed with the gleaming 4.0+++ GPA we would have gotten from a base school than the tattered and battle-scarred Jefferson diplomas we did get.

Posted by: hayesap8 | October 23, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

I may have missed this in the comments, but as someone with a daughter currently going through the college and scholarship application process, I have found that most competitive colleges and scholarship applications, want to know the unweighted GPA's (which are not directly provided by our school district, Loudoun...we've had to calculate and provide this separately). I think it is pretty common for colleges to strip away the extra weight and the non-core (e.g. PE, band. etc.) grades when evaluating students. Certainly, this problem is moot if the school/district simply provides enough info for the colleges to analyze the grades as they choose. The primary relevance of weighting is that it affects class rank. Having weighting used for that purpose gives some measure of fairness in a school where two students with identical GPAs didn't take comparably difficult courses, though even in this case, weighting is imperfect, since not all AP's or Honor's courses are the same level of difficulty.

Posted by: BCinDC | October 24, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Engineeringprof - you can just use principle 2) and make all AP / post AP courses weighted. If the only remaining issue is Techlab, you can either weight all of the Techlabs (if necessary to allow GPA parity) or give no weight to any Techlab (which is traditional). The problem is not as hard as you make it out to be.

FairfaxVAGuy - unfortunately, TJ's grading policies are directly relevant to not only TJ but also the rest of the county as well. The prime area is scholarships. For local scholarships, if a TJ student tends have a 0.5 GPA higher than another high school's students, they will given an unfair advantage, possibly on top of TJ's name recognition, but even without it. Alternatively, if the scale tends to reduce the GPAs of TJ students, then they are at an unfair disadvantage to other students for scholarships.

isfturtle, you said "Finally, if UVA is so familiar with TJ's situation while out-of-state schools are much less so, please explain to me how I got waitlisted at UVA but got into UNC-CH." If you give me more details, I can certainly speculate on answer. As it standards, the possible reasons are that UVA was looking more at something you were weak in (UVA has traditionally placed more emphasis on GPA than other schools), the fact that UVA is a better school and thus might be harder to get into, or due to the inherent small variance in selection, your situation came about. Without details, your situation doesn't show either way that UVA is or isn't familiar with TJ. However, the evidence that UVA is very familiar with TJ is that they receive 300 applications from TJ and gotten them for more than a dozen years and some of the admissions staff is on a first name basis with TJ's guidance.

Posted by: quandary87 | October 24, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

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