Grading the grades

Many schools are doing away with class rank, stress on GPA

By Adrianna Pitrelli

Years ago, a 4.0 grade-point average landed a high school graduate at the podium at commencement, speaking to their classmates as valedictorian.

But that all changed as schools moved to weighted grading systems, allowing students to earn GPAs significantly above a 4.0. This past school year, 245 local high school graduates finished high school with a GPA of 4.0 or above, or about 14 percent of the 2017 Johnson County graduating class.

As students go through high school, many strive to get a high GPA to help them get into college and earn scholarships. With a higher GPA often comes a higher class rank. But because certain classes, such as Advanced Placement courses, are weighted, some students graduate with GPAs much higher than 4.0. And that means students can graduate with a GPA well above a 4.0 and not be considered at the top of their class.

At high schools across the county, anywhere from 9 to 15 percent of students graduated this past school year with a GPA at or above a 4.0, and at nearly every high school, just having a 4.0 won’t put you in the top 10 of the class.

Bill Ronk has been a guidance counselor at Greenwood Community High School for 21 years, and has seen the way GPA is calculated change throughout his years.

“There was a push, over a decade ago to ensure that elite students were more identified or distinguished than average students using the GPA system,” he said. “The rationale being some students could take easy classes and have high GPAs while other students were taking harder classes and weren’t getting distinction because the classes were harder.”

But Ronk said that mindset was a falsity.

Greenwood Community High School conducted a three-year study of weighted GPA versus unweighted GPA, which showed no matter the system, the top 20 students were the same, he said.

That’s because the push to ensure elite students were getting identified happened at the same time the state made graduation requirements harder, such as taking three years of math. Students were no longer able to take the bare minimum of classes to get by, he said.

“The bottom line today is that GPA is meaningless,” Ronk said.

“Many schools report multiple GPAs on multiple scales. Most universities disregard it and express they’re well aware of the outrageous GPA weighting systems out there. The weighting system is completely on the digression on the schools. There are probably a dozen different weighted systems.”

Rather than focusing on GPA, college admissions officials look at what courses students take and what grades they get in their classes. From there, the college will create their own GPA system based on the coursework, rigor of the coursework, grades and standardized test scores, Ronk said.

There is no state standard for how GPA is weighted. For example, while some schools put more weight into a fourth year of foreign language or if a student takes more than seven classes per semester, others don’t. That means each school system has different criteria for how to weight grades. At some schools the valedictorian could have a 4.2, while at others, that same student could be rank 30th or higher.

Having a weighted GPA creates incentives for students to take classes they’re not interested in just because it’s weighted and they want a higher GPA, Ronk said.

“It’s not uncommon for them to take courses they have no interest in because it’s weighted, versus taking something they’re interested in,” he said. “I’ve had kids sacrifice things like peer tutoring because they wanted to take a weighted accounting course, but had no interest in accounting. It creates negative or perverse incentives that are unfortunate.”

Some high schools, like Franklin Community High School, no longer keep class rank.

“We offer many weighted classes here at the high school, so we have many students who graduate with over 4.0,” high school counselor Cristy Williams said. “But because we don’t keep class rank, I haven’t seen a negative impact.”

Johnson County schools aren’t alone when it comes to not tracking class rank.

Across the nation, more than half of all high schools have done away with class rank because they feel it penalizes students who exceed but aren’t in the top 10 percent of their class — and therefore often overlooked by elite colleges, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Because of this, class rank is not as big of a component for college admission decisions as it once was.

Kathryn Coffman, vice president of and dean of admissions at Franklin College, understands why some schools don’t assign class rank.

“Students who take more challenging classes can be penalized in that process,” she said. “Scheduling is harder because they’re taking more classes or the classes are harder, causing lower grades if not weighted a certain way.”

But GPA is still important in the admissions process of some colleges, Coffman said.

At Franklin College, GPA is still a consideration, especially as colleges are no longer requiring standardized test scores as part of their admission process, but officials are also looking at the courses taken, the rigor and the grades those students received, Coffman said.