Friday, April 05, 2002

No. 3, and none too happy about it

Senior disputes class-rank weights

By Laura Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MONROE — A.J. Kuntz has taken every honors and Advanced Placement class offered at Lemon-Monroe High School and aced every one of them.

        But come June, he won't be class valedictorian. Or salutatorian. Instead, he'll finish no better than third — because he took classes that didn't carry extra credit points as Advanced Placement (AP) classes do, and so lowered his overall average.

[photo] A.J. Kuntz, a senior at Lemon-Monroe, won't be valedictorian because he took more classes than two competitors. His senior-project study of class-ranking systems may bring a change in the rules.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        “The people ranked higher have taken fewer classes, and that's all it is,” said A.J., whose senior project, a detailed analysis of Monroe's grading and ranking system, became something of a crusade. He took his case to the Monroe School Board, which is reviewing the policy for future classes.

        Such debates on grade-point-average and class ranking policies have cropped up at schools across the Tristate and nation as students battle for the top rankings that can ensure admission to the best colleges and bring financial aid. The University of Kentucky, for example, automatically offers scholarships of $500 to $1,000 for any valedictorian in the state.

        From Deer Park High School, which revised its GPA-compilation system last month, to Bishop Fenwick High School in Middletown, which does not rank its students, different policies abound.

        As does conflict.

        Last year, Valley View High School in Germantown ended up in court over the heated competition for valedictorian.

        This year, Valley View has 11 valedictorians, and the school board is mulling different policies to compile grade-point average.

        In A.J.'s case, because he has taken all of the school's 10 AP/honors classes and earned the maximum number of credits, his GPA is lower than two other students who have taken fewer classes.

[photo] Valley View High School has 12 seniors with 4.0 GPAs. They are (rail, from front) Nicole Gillman, Bethany Moore, Katie Donson, Ashley Sticht and Anna Leis; and (wall, from right) Jason Izor, Karen Price, Ashley Green, Abby Taylor, Jeremy Partin, Meghan Coffman and Eddie Weinzel.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        This is because Monroe weights its classes, a common practice in Ohio high schools. An A in an AP/honors class is worth 5 points with a B worth 4 points; while an A in a regular class is worth 4 points with a B worth 3. Grades are averaged, so that it is possible for students who have taken AP/honors classes to have a GPA above the “perfect” 4.0.

        Because regular classes are worth fewer points than their honors counterparts, taking regular classes can actually lower students' overall averages.

        The same more-classes, lower-GPA phenomenon led Deer Park High to change its GPA-compilation system in February so that students aren't penalized for extra classes.

        “That's a problem,” said Superintendent Barbara Hammel. “Our goal is for students to take as many classes and learn as much as possible.”

        A few schools, such as Fenwick, don't even have class rankings.

        “We don't rank students,” said guidance counselor Yvonne Smith. “Since we're a private school and students are so homogenously categorized, it would be a disadvantage to rank.”

        On college applications that ask for class rank, the school provides the student's GPA, test scores and a class rank percentile.

        Fenwick does have a weighted GPA system for determining class valedictorian and salutatorian.

        Ms. Smith said that students are used to their school's nonranking policy.

        “It's just part of their academic profile, and there's never been that big of a question,” she said. “Our students are very competitive, but that's not the sole reason, class rank.”

        At Valley View High School, the issue of who was valedictorian went to court last year, and the result was five valedictorians. This year, 11 students all have perfect 4.0s and and will share valedictorian honors.

        Actually, there are 12 students with perfect 4.0s, but one just moved to the district and so is not eligible to be valedictorian, said guidance counselor John Watkins.

        Mr. Watkins said he thinks the potential for conflict always exists. The school board is developing a new policy to address how AP classes are weighted.

        Talawanda High School in Oxford changed its GPA-compilation policy last year to better reward students for taking harder classes.

        The new policy, which affects students beginning with the class of 2004 (this year's sophomores), weights AP classes at 5 points, honors classes at 4.5 points and regular classes at 4 points. Honors classes were not previously weighted.

        “There was concern from parents that we weren't weighting our honors classes,” guidance counselor Rich Onaitis said. “They wanted to provide an inducement for students to take more difficult classes if they got a weighted grade.”

        Mr. Onaitis said that there was a bit of a disagreement on the policy because “part of the parent argument was that it gave the students a benefit getting into college if they had a weighted GPA, and the counter to that was that the majority of colleges unweight GPA's anyway.”

        Admissions officials at Miami University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Dayton consider applicants based on their GPA on a 4.0 scale, weighted or unweighted.

        “We calibrate all different grade scales and condense them down to a 4.0 scale,” said Michael Mills, a representative from the Miami admissions office. “We keep the benefit of the weighting.”

        All three universities examine GPA, class rank and standardized test scores, as well as the applicant's high school's profile.

        For his senior project at Monroe, A.J. researched high schools locally and nationally and found that there are different class ranking systems across the country.

        What he concluded in his 28-page report is that the class ranking procedure needs to be changed and that schools should use a uniform formula.

        “I understand that you have to have some benchmark to measure student performance,” he said. “Ideally, there'd be one giant formula to get GPA and class rank with no problems. But the ideal is a lot different from reality.”

        A.J. proposed several solutions, including doing away with class rank altogether.

        He thought the fairest and most viable solution, though, was to keep the GPA and class rank systems the same and choose the valedictorian and salutatorian according to a list of criteria.

        According to A.J., the valedictorian should be the student with the “highest grades, hardest classes and most classes.”

        That would mean that only students with all A's should be considered for valedictorian (unless there are no students with all A's). The students with the most AP/honors classes should make the next cut, and the student with the greatest number of classes should be named valedictorian.

        A.J. presented his findings to the Monroe School Board in December.

        “I thought it was excellent,” board President Suzi Rubin said. “He had a well-thought-out plan and definitely it's in consideration.”

        She said the 2-year-old district, which separated from Middletown City Schools in 2000, is reviewing and rewriting its entire policy manual, including the class ranking system.

        But no matter what happens come graduation, Ms. Rubin said, she thinks A.J. is a remarkable young man.

        “He's a kid who is going to go far, no matter what his rank is,” she said.

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