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Tense time for AP students: grade weighting flunks a test

Like all human beings, educators accept rules and procedures that make sense to them, even when academic types wave data in their faces proving they are wrong. That appears to be the case with one of the most powerful and widespread practices in Washington area high schools---the extra grade point for college-level courses.

Thousands of students are taking panicked breaths wondering if what I am about to reveal will incinerate their grade point averages, keep them out of any college anyone has heard of and consign them to a life of begging for dollar bills like that scruffy guy on Lynn Street south of Key Bridge.

A new study shows that grade weighting for Advanced Placement courses is unnecessary. Schools have been promising students 3 grade points (usually given for a B) if they get a C in an AP course so they will not be frightened away by its college-level demands. It turns out, however, they will take AP with or without extra credit.

Never mind. Our students can relax. College competition rules. Nobody is going to stop weighting grades unless every other district in the country does. Russia and the United States still have many nuclear warheads and missiles two decades after the end of the Cold War. Grade-weighting is sort of like that, but more serious.

The scholar interfering with one of our most cherished grading practices is a young economist, Kristin Klopfenstein, associate professor at Texas Christian University currently on leave to work as a senior researcher at the Texas Schools Project at the University of Texas-Dallas. She is an expert on AP, and often uses the much-admired Texas school data base. She surveyed 900 four-year high schools on their AP grade weighting practices. Most gave extra points for taking the college level courses, although there was no consistent system. (In the Washington area, nearly every school system gives an extra grade point to a student who earns an A, B or C in an AP or International Baccalaureate course. Some give extra credit for Ds too.)

Klopfenstein said, like any good economist, that she thought students would respond to the incentive, but they didn't. When she compared schools that weighted AP to those that didn’t, there was no significant difference in AP course taking. “Other rewards to AP-taking, including earning college credit and advantages in the college admissions process, are strong enough to induce student participation without the additional incentive of grade-weighting,” she concluded.

Washington area school officials admit they have no data justifying their weighting rules, but think they bring peace of mind. “We do this to reward students for taking our most challenging courses, as well as to provide a safety net for students who want to but might otherwise shy away from taking rigorous courses,” said Steven M. Johnson, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Carroll County schools.

Sandra Mitchell, associate superintendent for instruction for the Fauquier County schools, said she suspected the weights might not be so important after her school system stopped weighting honors courses despite worries that enrollment would plummet. Instead, she said, “honors enrollment has grown.”

I love entitlements too, even the nonsense ones. I understand why many students hope Klopfenstein will move on to another project. I would probably own a house even if I didn’t get that tax break on mortgage interest, but I don’t want anybody doing any experiments to test that theory either.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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By Jay Mathews  | May 30, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  AP grade weighting unnecessary, Texas economist is the culprit, local districts defend practice, students panic, students will take AP even without extra credit, study of 900 high schools  
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Comments

Encouraging students to take more demanding course work is only one of several reasons why a school may give additional weight to AP (and Honors level in some school systems) classes.

Another reason would be to keep "class rank" fair. By giving more weight to AP classes, students that receive a B or C in an AP course are still likely to be ranked above their peers that took no AP level courses, but received higher grades in easy classes. If you want your class rank to reflect fairly the academic effort of the student body, then weighted grades will help.

Class rank becomes very important as students enter the college app process as many colleges use class rank to make admissions decisions.

Whether or not the weighting systems encourage kids to take more challenging coursework, the weighting has a beneficial affect of keeping the strongest academic students near the top of their class ranks, making it more likely they'll get into a college they want to get into. Isn't that important too?

Posted by: EduCrazy | May 31, 2010 6:39 AM | Report abuse

Once again, Mr. Matthews, you selectively address an issue to promote your work as a shill for the accountable-to-no-one College Board. EduCrazy is correct. My school adopted grade weighting to make class ranking fair to students who take challenging courses. Schools adopt grade weighting when a cosmetology major becomes the valedictorian and the basket weaving major is the salutatorian. Without grade weighting, kids eventually catch on and stop taking the challenging courses to preserve their class ranking.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | May 31, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Another economist studying the wrong question. The real question is how do the AP scores match up with college grades. At an average college, can an A student pull a 5 on the AP exam? How about a B student? Can they really get a 4? And then, can the few C students you can find, get a 3? If not, the AP grading standards are too hard.

Posted by: mbc7 | May 31, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The underlying reason for the importance of AP is that a high school diploma no longer means a student is ready to college level work. Until this problem is acknowledged, all the other adjustments concerning AP, grade weighting, etc. amount to arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Posted by: rgwc | May 31, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure the main reason AP classes are weighted is so that stellar students can stand out to colleges. If you remove the weights kids still have to take those classes to impress colleges--so they do, as the data show--but now with a lot more risk and stress.

Shouldn't they do a study on whether colleges respond to the weights and whether stress goes up for students if you remove the weights before declaring something over-the-top like "academic typed . . .prov[ed grade weighting is] wrong."

Posted by: steve10c | May 31, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

for Educrazy and buckbuck11---You make an excellent point, but the class ranking issue has far less importance in this area (and in much of the rest of the country) because most of our high schools, particularly the most competitive ones in our richest counties, like Fairfax and Montgomery, don't rank in the traditional way. Some may tell the college what decile the kid is in. I will have to check. But they don't go further than that. The colleges are not told if the kid is number 1, number 33 or number 103. The most competitive high schools around the country have been abandoning class ranking in droves because they think it puts their kids at a disadvantage. They are convinced a kid with a B-plus average at McLean High and ranked 120th is WAY better than a kid with an A-minus average at Fairfax High in LA who is ranked 45th.
For mbc7, the College Board regularly gives AP tests to college students who have just completed a comparable college intro course in that subject and compare the grades they get on the AP test to the grades they get in the college course. It is their prime means for making sure their AP grading rubrics match what would happen if the student were taking a college course instead so that the colleges who give credit for AP can trust the AP test scores they see on the transcript. For steve10c, as I said in the piece, AP weighting is so common now in the most competitive high schools that the districts would not dare stop weighting for fear of their kids losing the grade point arms race that you have correctly described.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 31, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Steve10c -- you might be interested in a paper done by Maine that addressed the question you posed directly and found that colleges do indeed respond positively to grade weighting. Students that attend a high school with grade weighting had an advantage in the admission process. You can find the paper online; it's called "Occasional Paper No. 35" and was created by the University of Maine: http://libraries.maine.edu/cre/35/No35.pdf

Posted by: EduCrazy | May 31, 2010 11:21 PM | Report abuse

I read with sadness the fact that enrollment in the harder courses increased when the extra credit was removed. I believe there are other factors affecting that particular result (including a disasterous economy?). In my case, I would not have taken the harder AP courses in high school had there not been an incentive that I would get more credit for taking them. I graduated in 1980, endured an intensive undergraduate engineering program and then pursued and completed a doctorate in engineering. Had I not been challenged with the harder AP courses in high school (receiving more credit for working harder), I doubt I would have spent (or survived) the next nine years in college.

Posted by: SafetyGuru | June 1, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Both grade weighting for AP courses and class rankings are unnecessary appendages to the present college prep high school process. In a real way, they divert students' attention from the important to the unimportant.

Instead, students should be incentivized to take AP courses - to the extent they are able - by explaining that stretching their minds with AP course content will make life in college go much easier, particularly when in competition with other equally well (or better) prepared students.

Having a good portfolio of AP courses (and AP test results) will be much more likely to get one into a highly selective university than will GPA and/or class standing.

If students have to obsess about something, do so with SAT/ACT scores. They are much more likely to "get you in" or "keep you out". And if students really want to obsess, consider whether they require a large amount of financial aid. Not very egalitarian or fair perhaps, but quite true.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | June 1, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

fairfaxguy is right again. I honestly don't know who he is, but if he keeps this up my editors may decide to yank the blog from my arthritic, mistake-typing hands and give it to him.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 1, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

GPA weighting is double-dipping. Colleges already look to see the quality of the transcript; I have heard time and again from guidance counselors and college admissions folks that the rigorous schedule matters more and more every year. To add a GPA boost is to ignore the boost already given to challenging work, not to mention the unfortunate fact of grade inflation that we see burgeoning around the country.

Buckbuck's suggestion that inferior students will suddenly rise above "honor students" in class ranking is not based on anything reasonable I have ever seen in any of the three public high schools I have taught in. If there's a real threat for us to be wary about, I suggest that it is in high schools being driven/incentivized by ignorance (real or imagined) at the college level. Afraid a college will fail to discriminate between a self-motivated scholar and a kid who coasts through easy courses? Realize that that means that you think college admissions folks are pretty stupid.

Imperfect, maybe, but not stupid. If we mess with high school systems because we expect stupidity in higher education, we are adding to the problem. Let's trim back the biasing factors, provide the data to the admissions folks, and rely on transparency. That's better than wrapping our high school grading practices in duct tape.

Posted by: carlrosin | June 1, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

I teach at a high school with an open enrollment AP program, where kids may not speak English as their first language, and only 15% of the parents attended college. We do offer 12 AP courses, and kids flock to take them because of the grade bump. Learning for the sake of learning may be the goal, but first you have to hook them in with something. That "something" is the grade bump. Ask a smart kid with no one pushing him at home whether he would like to take a course that is twice as much work and your theory goes out the window. I continue to believe that a good AP teacher is the great equalizer - much more so than the SAT because middle and upper class kids can afford an SAT prep course, leaving AP classes as the way otherwise disadvantaged students "prove" they are worthy of admission and scholarships. Doesn't anyone understand that Seniors are taking AP courses to pump up their GPA's?

Hate to be conspiratorial, but I think doing away with the grade bump just like colleges only giving credit for "5s" is another way to keep elite colleges full of same old same old. Klopfenstein should know a little history about why the SAT was started in the first place and should focus on WHO takes the AP courses not just on the statistics showing no significant decline in AP enrollment without the grade bump. Ever heard of equity and excellence?

Posted by: hotrod3 | June 2, 2010 12:28 AM | Report abuse

I read the author's investigation differently than she does. She doesn't estimate the models to detect the effect of incentives to students in different situations.
I also don't find that she has acknowledged the time-budget constraints that affect some students differently than other. By a "work vs leisure" tradeoff-analysis she doesn't mean study vs chillin', but I don't read that she has data on students who, with multiple AP-or-equal courses, do not have the time to revise and resubmit for full credit (for example) for one course due to the demands of other courses. It isn't just misery some students would like to avoid; it is pulling down their GPAs with uncompensated over-commitment.
Finally, the researcher doesn't estimate what any given student would do, faced with the tradeoff of additional credit for one vs none for the other; instead she compares statistically adjusted students in different schools facing different regimes. Birds of different feathers. Starving eagles can't be statistically adjusted to simulate how they respond to offered corn, as if they were just oversized and starving chickens. She has no data on how a switch in extra credit at the same school for equally work-intensive courses, say in psychology and world-history, would affect the relative enrollments in the two courses.

Posted by: incredulous | June 2, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

If hotrod3 has a chance to tell me confidentially at mathewsj@washpost.com which school that is, I would be grateful. I am interested in such places.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 2, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Re: carlrosin
I've taught in two different school districts over my 32 year career in which it indeed happen that honor students were leap frogged by vo-tech students. Of course, I don't teach in the wealthy suburbs - I teach in a rural school in which most parents don't have a four year college degree. The weighting for determining class rank works for us. The unweighted grades are communicated to colleges. We also eschew AP courses in favor of course for credit options available through our local community college.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | June 3, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

A newspaper still willing to spend a little on research would secure for the reporter the anonymous transcripts from one of the premier high schools of the paper's favorite chancellor, and calculate GPAs for students, by race / ethnicity with and without AP weighting. The large difference between groups in AP course-taking would be found to account for much of the tenancy of white students in the top quarter of the weighted GPA distribution.

And the reporter might also inquire into the grades earned by students who scored just a "1" on the AP exam at that and other DCPS schools; and whether the AP course grade was not a function of the student taking the exam, those failing to take it receiving the grade they earned in the course, and those taking it earning a minimum grade of "C."

Posted by: incredulous | June 3, 2010 1:20 AM | Report abuse

Re: buckbuck11
I think different systems will work for different schools. The weighting at my suburban school (and the other two suburban schools where I have taught) should be removed because the pull of college is strong enough -- more than strong enough. In the circumstance you describe for your school, it seems otherwise, and I respect that difference.

Another reason not to have one size fitting all. The "AP" label on the course should be less important than the score on the exam -- if the exam is taken at all, which, sadly, it is not in a lot of cases (some for very legitimate cost reasons) -- but that's not the case either. Schools need to know their demographics, educate their populations about college admissions processes and about AP, and not take the simplest brute-force way to the finish line if the real goal is more nuanced.

Posted by: carlrosin | June 3, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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