Despite Palo Alto school district Superintendent Max McGee's personal reservations about the potential downsides of reporting weighted grades on high school students' transcripts, including that it will "exacerbate our highly competitive, attainment-oriented culture in Palo Alto to the detriment of some students," he is recommending that the district report both weighted and unweighted grade point averages starting next fall.
McGee issued his much-anticipated recommendation on Friday in an in-depth report on community opinions, survey data, research and his observations on grade-reporting practices. The question of whether to report weighted grades, or giving extra points for Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses, has become a lightning rod in the district since last fall, when a Palo Alto High School senior said her unweighted GPA left her just shy of qualifying for a four-year, $36,000 merit-based scholarship at one of her top-choice colleges. The issue has divided students, parents, teachers and staff alike who feel strongly about the advantages and disadvantages to weighted grades.
McGee is also recommending that the high schools do not weight grades for freshmen, "formalize" the decision-making process around course selection, "redouble" efforts to increase access to AP and honors classes for low-income and minority students and create a team that will study and produce a report on the impact of reporting weighted grades by April 2019.
McGee wrote that the recommendations were a "challenge" for him to make personally but that as superintendent, "I realize that schools need to reflect community values."
"From past experiences here and in other districts, as well as being a parent and grandparent - I do not think weighted grades should be reported on transcripts," he wrote. "That said, I also see some value in how it could increase opportunities for scholarships and be an incentive for students to enroll in an AP/Honors class, which they wanted to take but may have not done so for fear of a bad grade."
While neither high school currently reports weighted grades on students' official transcripts, Gunn counselors automatically add the number in a counselor-report section on the Common Application. Paly staff does not. Counselors from both schools inform students of their weighted averages during meetings.
In November, the school board approved a short-term solution for this year's seniors — to report cumulative unweighted and weighted GPAs, but to await McGee's recommendation before making a decision on the district's long-term practice. (At the time, he recommended against reporting weighted GPAs for this year.)
In his report, McGee said that he found both research and common practice generally support the reporting of weighted grades. There is no clear, research-based link between reporting weighted GPAs and increased student stress, he said, though he noted that many school districts, colleges and universities are increasingly "concerned about student stress from chasing higher GPA and more AP classes for the numbers game of admissions."
All but one district in the national 21st Century Consortium Schools, to which Palo Alto Unified belongs, report weighted grades, according to McGee, and 75 percent of districts across the country do as well.
All neighboring high school districts except for Fremont Union also report weighted grades. Many nearby high schools "commonly report" both a weighted and unweighted GPA, according to McGee.
McGee is suggesting that the district give an extra point to students who earn a C or better in all courses that the University of California system designates as an honors course and in all AP courses.
In surveys, forums and webinars held this spring, the majority of students and parents indicated strong support for reporting weighted GPAs, McGee said.
In a survey, close to 80 percent of students said they preferred a weighted grading system, and 69 percent said they thought it was a "good" or "excellent" idea to report both weighted and unweighted amounts on transcripts. Similarly, the majority of parent respondents said they support weighted-grade reporting. (A total of 1,510 students and 1,075 parents responded, spread evenly across the two schools.)
Support among staff, however, was less strong. About half of the 86 teachers who responded said they preferred a unweighted system. Teachers, counselors and administrators told McGee in meetings that they fear reporting weighted grades will increase student competition and stress, and lead students to take more honors and AP courses over unweighted electives. They were also "adamant," McGee wrote, that the schools not weight honors or AP classes for freshmen given "the adjustment to the rigor of high school was difficult enough."
Counselors and administrators reported that since the discussion about weighted grades erupted, they have received a "record number" of inquiries from parents and students about enrolling in honors classes.
In the survey, the majority of students — 78 percent at Gunn and 81 percent at Paly — said they often consider their GPA when choosing classes. More than 80 percent of students from both schools said that having weighted grades reported on their transcripts would change how they select their classes.
In more than 1,000 open-ended comments on the survey, those in support of weighted grades "far outnumber those opposed to it," McGee wrote. General themes backing weighted GPAs were "extra work should equal an extra grade point, good for college admissions, incentive to challenge oneself, good for mental health, other high schools report WGPA and good for scholarships," his report states.
"You have no idea how important this is for the majority of the student body; this is our future college on the line," one student wrote in the comment section. "I'm pleading that you take into account what the student voice is saying."
Another student wrote that his or her weighted GPA "simply helps lower my stress by acting as a safety net for my transcript."
Comments against weighted grades, on the other hand, argued that the practice would be detrimental for mental health and equity and discourage students from taking extracurriculars, McGee wrote.
"We can't have it both ways: Do we want to be the district that pumps out academically stressed students or do we want students to pride themselves on being health and well‐balanced?" one parent wrote in the open-ended comments. "Right now, you have a stressed-out student population, teacher population and community."
Another proposal McGee considered but did not make a recommendation on is whether the schools should cap the number of classes that students can receive weight for. While most students and parents didn't favor a cap, "most, but not all, faculty thought it would be a good idea," he wrote.
McGee agreed, writing that his "fear is that without a cap, an unspecified but significant number of students will sacrifice more sleep, incur more stress and compete more fervently to have the highest possible WGPA."
If data next year shows a spike in mental health concerns, more students taking honors and APs over electives, spending more time on homework and less time sleeping, "I will not hesitate to recommend a cap," he wrote.
If the schools adopt a weighted grade system, McGee is recommending they carefully monitor college admissions and scholarship awards, course-taking patterns, enrollment in electives compared to APs and honors, students' mental and physical health and homework levels.
To address concerns about weighted grades' potential impact on the achievement gap, he is also recommending increasing support for lower-achieving students, including providing "expert" tutoring and increasing teacher diversity. Parents at a forum held in East Palo Alto told staff that they wanted "assurances" that tutorial help would be available and that teachers would be not only well-trained, but also motivated to work with their children.
Other recommendations include to make more transparent the process for classes that are designated as honors by the University of California; approve a policy on how courses students take outside the district should count for credit and course weighting; create a policy on class sizes that includes the minimum number of students that must enroll for an elective to run; and "accelerate" an ongoing effort to revise the high schools' master course catalogs to ensure courses approved for weighting are correctly identified as such.
McGee's recommendation is subject to board approval. The trustees will discuss it at their Tuesday, March 28, meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. View McGee's full report here.