Some may think the Palo Alto Unified School District board's decision to weight grade point averages (GPAs) will increase student stress and negatively affect school climate. Others believe it will widen the achievement gap. And others oppose it because friends and teachers they trust think it's detrimental to students’ mental health. While I, too, am a strong advocate for student wellness and a healthy school climate, there are several reasons I do not believe weighted GPAs will have the adverse effects that many claim.
One of the arguments against reporting weighted grades is that students will feel pressured into taking more challenging, weighted classes in order to cushion their GPA and appear more competitive when applying to college. However, as long as Paly offers any Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes, there will always be internal and external pressure on students to take the higher-level classes. The reality is that Paly already offers unweighted honors classes, which many students take despite the lack of GPA weighting, because they know it will provide them with a competitive edge for college admissions.
As any student who has been to a college admissions talk will know, admissions officers emphasize that they consider not only an applicant's grade point average but also the rigor of their course load. Many students view this as an incentive to take more challenging classes to distinguish themselves from fellow students, even if these classes are not weighted. As long as Paly offers the various levels of courses that are distinguished as such on transcripts, there will always be an incentive for students to take harder classes, regardless of whether they are weighted or not.
If Paly wants to address the problem of student stress, it would likely be more effective for the school to cease the practice of offering "honors" classes and to provide AP weighting only to the most rigorous classes that are deserving of college credit, which may more effectively deter students from taking classes simply to stockpile APs.
Teachers and students alike have expressed their concern that reporting weighted grades will further widen the achievement gap, as students with the resources to take AP classes could end up having significantly higher GPAs than minorities or other groups of students who may not have equal access to advanced classes. Though the range of GPAs may widen among students if Paly chooses to weight GPAs, the achievement gap itself will remain unaffected. The achievement gap can rather be solved by reducing the levels of courses offered, such as accelerated or honors classes or by working to provide disadvantaged students with more resources.
There is a reason why choosing not to report weighted GPAs could adversely affect a student's chance of college admission: Some schools have a hard GPA cut-off for scholarship eligibility. In this case, reporting an unweighted GPA could significantly hurt students' chances of meeting scholarship requirements for certain schools.
Some universities, including the University of Oregon and University of Colorado, Boulder, do not recalculate applicants' GPAs (with weighting) when considering students for scholarships. Because both of these universities are popular and well-respected at Paly, students and administrators are aware of these two schools as being outliers among a vast number of schools that do recalculate student GPAs. However, the fact that these two widely known universities do not follow this practice makes it likely that other smaller, lesser-known universities also do not recalculate GPAs.
In this case, reporting weighted GPAs could prove to be beneficial for Paly students because it provides a safety net for those who may apply to universities that do not recalculate GPA or that follow their own protocol, especially for students with borderline GPAs.
Ultimately, as college admissions become more competitive in the U.S., with an increasing number of students applying internationally and tuition costs at an all-time high, it benefits all students to be given whatever advantage they can get in terms of admission and scholarships.
The school board has made the decision to weight Paly students' GPAs for the class of 2017, but it has yet to decide what the protocol will be for graduating students in coming years. While there may be flaws in both reporting practices, I urge members of our community to take a step back and question whether the epidemic of student stress in Palo Alto will truly be affected by this practice. It is easy to pin Palo Alto's longstanding problems with student wellness and mental health to the schools' GPA-reporting practices, but there are obviously deeper, far more complex issues at play in our community that push students to take harder and more rigorous classes regardless of how they are credited, and addressing these underlying issues holistically is far more effective and worthwhile.
Rima Parekh is a senior at Palo Alto High School and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.