A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Opinion, Student Life

Worth the Weight?

I have not met a single person — student, parent or teacher — who thinks that the education system we have is a perfect one. And they shouldn’t; it isn’t. The consistent issue seems to be that students are less interested in learning.  Members of my generation value the end result more than the lesson they learned from getting to that point. In an era of memorization of sports statistics and social media ‘likes,’ many of my peers are becoming obsessed with numbers. I am absolutely as much of a culprit of this as my peers, but it is the prioritization of ‘getting the job done’ rather than focusing on the importance of the process, that worries me.

Among these numbers are grades, and, more specifically, grade point averages (GPA). Unweighted GPA’s run on a four point scale: an A is a 4.0, a B a 3.0 and so on, with A minuses and B pluses falling between these intervals. Grades from each class are evaluated identically  and given the same weight (with the exception of the few every-other-day classes that some of us still have on our transcripts).

Of course, I would love to argue that grade point averages — and grades in general for that matter — should be abolished entirely, as they place the justification for school and learning in the wrong place. However, given the widespread reluctance to capitalize on the resources that secondary education provides, GPAs can and should be used as an external incentive when internal incentives are lacking.

A weighted GPA is a numerical representation of the combination of one’s effort and results: the difficulty of class taken and the success achieved in that course. Unweighted GPAs simply reflect half of the package. And aside from the fact that weighted GPAs are preferred by college admissions officers and  more accurately represent the level of preparedness a student has achieved in anticipation of attending college, they offer a motivational benefit to each individual high school student.  In a weighted GPA system, students are automatically rewarded for choosing to challenge themselves, which is a step in the right direction in terms of academic prioritization. Having the extra buffer of a weighted average in harder classes allows for the difficulties of taking courses outside of one’s comfort zone, and encourages students to explore more challenging options and pursue their interests without fear of failure. This is possible without the same risk of negatively impacting their ability to succeed in the future that comes with taking AP courses in a 4.0-scale GPA system.

The availability of classes that would be ‘inflated’ on a weighted GPA scale, namely AP courses, is a hotly debated topic, as several studies have shown that students belonging to minority groups and low income families take AP courses less often. Students who have time consuming after school commitments, such as jobs or familial responsibilities, may not be able to spend the same amount of time doing homework as others. This issue does not lie within the GPA weighting system, but instead in the responsibility that each teacher and school has to ensure equal access for all students to the best education available. Study halls and occasional homework exemptions are both solutions to this problem.

Many also argue that the price of the AP exams is excessive, butthe opportunity to take them in place of college courses eliminates this concern. While each AP exam costs around $90, eight AP exams cost nowhere near as much as a year of college, which averages around $31,000. Furthermore, many schools waive this fee or fundraise to ensure that its economically challenged students will not be robbed of the opportunity to take these tests. A study conducted by the College Board found that there is a positive correlation between taking AP classes and graduating on time, which is also a money saver.

The issue of GPA weighting also comes into play when students apply to college. While many argue that the weighing of GPAs automatically puts academically ambitious students ahead of others, resulting in colleges ignoring or paying less attention to those with lower GPA’s, most schools reweigh the GPAs they receive according to their own standards and preferences. Because of this, the issue of applying to college should not be considered when deciding whether or not GPAs should be weighted. However, in the case that a college does receive a GPA and chooses not to reweigh it (UMichigan is an example of a public university that does not reweigh its GPAs) weighted GPAs already a more accurate representation of the student’s effort throughout their high school career than.

There are always students whose priorities lie outside the realm of commonly offered AP courses: in theater, art, music, and other classes that do not fall within the core curriculum of most schools. While many schools only offer beginner-level courses in these subjects, there are plenty that also allow more advanced classes, though not specifically AP. In these cases, I believe that the more advanced levels of these classes should be given weight, just as an AP or honors course would.

Despite the positive results that accompany the weighting of GPAs, it cannot be ignored that many of the above mentioned benefits only fully exist in an ideal situation. Students may not recognize the weighted GPA as an opportunity to challenge themselves with less risk of being penalized, instead only considering it a chance to improve their numbers and focus more on classes that teach to a test. The fact remains that not all teachers are prepared or available to teach beyond AP tests in AP courses, or to cater to students who may be less capable of spending time on their homework, which may result in an unfair distribution of students among the classes given more weight. Despite these challenges, schools should still strive to adopt the practice of weighting their GPAs, and the mindset that values learning over the statement on paper that marks their ‘success.’With a four point grading system, students receive little encouragement to leave their comfort zone, each class only offering a potential for deficit from their GPA. Instead, the opportunity to take classes which are worth more points than are offered on a typical 4.0 scale, allows the emphasis to be placed on the knowledge, experience, and challenge of taking AP and honors courses instead of simply the number achieved at the end of the road.