Summit High School changes GPAs, graduation honors
January 21, 2015
At Summit High School, students' grade point averages determine class ranking, honor roll and who receives special recognition at graduation.
GPAs matter to local students and their families, perhaps most importantly, because colleges, universities and other post-secondary institutions use the numbers to decide who to admit.
Though colleges nationwide are moving toward a more holistic approach, high school grades still make up the largest consideration in the college application process, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Grades and GPAs also often determine eligibility for scholarships and grants.
This year, Summit High School decided to change the way it calculates students' GPAs as well as how it honors high academic achievers at graduation. Students in the class of 2016, next year's seniors, will be the first cohort affected.
Summit High School started transitioning to a new grading system, called standards based grading, in 2012 after the model had been implemented at the middle and elementary schools. Since then some students have received grades on a traditional 100-point scale as well as four- and eight-point scales.
The students graduating this year, especially, received a mix of the old and new grades, said Margaret Carlson, a school board member and parent of a senior. "They've had the most confusing grading system going through."
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The high school wanted to create a consistent system as well as evaluate what changes to grading would give students the best opportunities.
"We wanted to make sure that our kids were cast in the best light possible as they were applying for college, universities, scholarships, post-secondary opportunities," said Drew Adkins, principal of Summit High School, at a school board meeting Dec. 9.
A work group of about 15 parents and high school staff members met a few times throughout the fall to discuss changes, review what other high schools are doing and learn about how different universities judge students.
In October, the group found a Wall Street Journal article entitled "10 Things College Admissions Offices Won't Tell You."
"It validated a lot of what we were learning," said Sue Wilcox, a school board and work group member.
WEIGHTING NOT INFLATING GRADES
Based on their research, the work group's members decided to stick with a four-point scale, so grades will no longer be converted into a familiar percentage.
The work group felt the four-point scale best reflected students' learning and understanding, though members discovered universities evaluate students using all kinds of scales.
When talking to colleges, Carlson said, "They'll say, 'We see it all. We see apples, oranges and bananas."
Next, the work group looked at how grades are weighted when students take advanced courses. The group's members originally believed universities unweighted students' grades in the admissions process.
"Turns out that wasn't the case," said Julie McCluskie, a work group member and the school district's communications and community engagement director.
The group discovered that outside of Ivy League schools, most colleges use the weighted grades. Large schools don't have time to manipulate or investigate the grade information they're given on thousands of applications. So Summit must continue weighting, but how?
Of 38 high schools in 22 Colorado school districts, the group found most high schools weighted grades differently than Summit. Summit has multiplied students' grades by 1.1 to achieve the weighted grade, while two-thirds of the other schools were adding a full point.
Parents and school counselors on the work group expressed concerns about grade inflation if Summit adopted that model.
"We do not want to do that at all," Adkins said.
The group didn't want to lessen the respect admissions offices have for Summit students or to paint an inaccurate picture of how students would perform in a higher education setting. However, the group decided the plus-one method doesn't change weighted GPAs much.
"When we tested some of the GPAs that we currently have," McCluskie said, "we didn't see a drastic increase."
Summit will start using the plus-one weighting system for the class of 2016.
SEPARATED BY TENTHS OF A POINT
The group also chose to de-emphasize class ranking after learning colleges, scholarship and grant reviewers don't seem to use that factor unless students are ranked at or near the top. The school will stop automatically printing class ranking, which is based on weighted GPAs, on students' transcripts.
"It becomes, we hope, a useful tool for those kids and families that want it," McCluskie said.
Valedictorian and salutatorian will continue to be the first- and second-ranked students in the class. However, those students won't automatically speak at graduation.
Not every valedictorian and salutatorian wants to speak at commencement, Adkins said, and the students shouldn't be punished for their achievement.
Other students, typically within tenths or hundreds of a GPA point to the top two students, might want to speak.
Adkins said the school will work on refining the speaker selection process in the coming months.
From a pool of high academic achievers, the rest of the class might choose students who best represent their values. A graduation ceremony application process could consider community service hours and the quality of the prepared speech.
The work group chose not to change the grade cut-offs that qualify students for gold and silver honor roll each semester. Students will still be listed on the gold honor roll when they earn a GPA of 3.5 or higher in one semester, and they will qualify for the silver level if they earn a GPA of 3.0 to 3.49.
For graduation though, more students can expect to be recognized for their grades than in the past as the school will use the Latin honor designations popular at most universities:
Summa Cum Laude, meaning with highest honor, for students who earn 4.0 GPAs or higher
Magna Cum Laude, or with great honor, for GPAs from 3.75 to 3.99
Cum Laude, or with praise, for GPAs from 3.5 to 3.74
Carlson praised the new system as much healthier for students as it promotes them to challenge and push themselves instead of competing against each other.
"I'm really grateful that the work group did such a thorough job," she said. "This is something that really needed to evolve."
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