Muddle for Middle Schoolers? – Readers’ forum

Proposed Changes to the High School Program of Studies At a meeting 11/13 at WAHS, Don Vale presented proposals for changes to the High School “Program of Studies” (POS) to a large group of parents and high school students. The program of studies sets forth the core offerings for students and states the grading and testing procedures. The POS is reviewed and approved by the Board every year.

Under the steering committee’s proposal, changes would be made in the following areas: grade point average (GPA); placement levels in core courses; grading scale and exams. See handout (PDF).

While all of the proposals generated some controversy, the most troubling to the attendees at WAHS was the change from the current system of weighting GPA [a greater value is given to more difficult levels of courses] to the proposed non-weighting GPA [an A in a standard course and an A in an AP course are given the same point value] with no class ranking.

If approved, these changes would affect those students entering WAHS (and all division High Schools) in Fall 2007—that is, this year’s 8th grade students. I was impressed by the dozens of high school students in attendance, many of whom spoke with passion and eloquence against the proposal. They sited the requirements of college applications (which often seek class rank) as well as their experience that having the additional value on difficult course material was an incentive to challenge themselves toward more vigorous course work. Parents were concerned that the reason behind making the changes has not been clearly articulated. In response to a question, Mr. Vale conceded that teachers at WAHS are against the proposal. Again and again, the success of students at WAHS and its reputation among colleges and universities in the Commonwealth was reiterated. The consensus at WAHS was: “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

I’m concerned that parents of middle school kids, who will be the first to experience these changes, have not been made aware of the issues. The Steering Committee’s website includes (as of today) 15 pdf downloads and a monitored discussion board. Also see the Daily Progress article (11/11/06).
An additional information session will be held 7:30 p.m. Thursday 11/16 at Monticello High. A date for a session Albemarle High has not yet been scheduled (per DP article). The recommendations will be submitted to Superintendent Pam Moran for review. If the Superintendent endorses the proposal, the School Board will vote on this matter in December. Once again, it is incumbent on parents to know the issues and speak out for their child(ren).


Ed. note: More information may be found at Brian Wheeler’s blog. If you don’t know, Brian is helping to set the standard for what government should be – one that listens, is open and responsive.

Note #2 – if you want to write for realcrozetva, even if it’s just one story, please email me.

Update 11/18/2006: This is a relevant Washington Post article with one of our own educators from Western Albemarle High School, pointed out by an astute reader.

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23 Replies to “Muddle for Middle Schoolers? – Readers’ forum”

  1. The following is a conversation emailed to me by Mark Crockett from WAHS. The bolding is intended to show two participants to the conversation:

    I suspect AP students like the ones cited in the RealCrozet article dealing with Program of Studies changes proposed for WAHS and other county high schools dislike the plan to scrap bonus points for AP and Honors because (1) they are uninformed about what research says on this issue, (2) because weighting of advanced courses like AP and Honors is what they’ve always known, most importantly, (3) because their self-interest is at stake, i.e., they fear they may “lose” their competitive edge for getting into selective colleges….which is patently untrue, and (4) because they’ve never given any critical reflection to the numerous academic advantages they already enjoy. It is a bit analagous to the already affluent, who’ve done well economically over the last 20 years or more in this country, in part due to generous tax laws and tax cuts, complaining about an end to the Bush tax cuts that went disproportionately to them.

    The research seems fairly clear on unweighted grade pointed average:

    Geiser and Santelices [2004] studied the role of advanced placement/honors in admissions to the Univeristy of California system. They cite much of what is already known about Advanced Placement courses. For example, most selective colleges require AP courses; “…participation in AP and others honors-level courses remains sharply skewed along socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines;” there is “…great pressure on schools to expand their AP offerings;” “a large and apparently growing number of students now enroll in AP coursework without taking the associated AP exams” (one of the dirty little secrets about AP); “little research has been done of the predictive validity of AP coursework; but, what is out there seems to suggest that “AP courses were among the weaker predictors of college outcomes.”

    In their study, Geiser and Santelices calculate the predictive power of GPA on college grades three ways: 1. unweighted 2. half-weighted and 3. fully weighted [1 full bonus point]……..the conclusion? “…unweighted high school GPA…is consistently the best predictor of both first-and second-year college grades….the high school GPA weighted with a full bonus point for AP and honors is invariably the worst predictor of college performance. This finding is consistent with earlier UC studies…”)

    The POS committee has largely ignored or circumvented the research on ability grouping/tracking to reach its decision to let individual schools approach this issue on their own. And the committee and/or principals and central office people continue to turn a blind eye to the research on Advanced Placement (AP) courses that’s come out over the last half-dozen years. Instead, in order to “look good,” we want to increase AP enrollment.

    Note: For a more detailed perspective on AP course and test quality, and on the effects of AP courses and tests on college performance, see the National Research Council study (2002) on AP math and science tests; see the Geiser & Santelices (2004) study, “The Role of Advanced Placement and Honors Courses in College Admissions; see Klopfenstein’s study (2005), “The Advanced Placement performance edge: fact or fiction?”; see the Sadler & Tai study (2006) on AP math and science AP courses and test scores; and see Clifford Adelman’s “The Toolbox Revisited” (2006). Also see my debate with Jay Mathews of the Washington Post on the Post’s website (go to Education, click, find Jay Mathews’ picture, click, go to the July 25, 2006 column, “A Teacher Takes Me On.”)

    One real concern is that we will collapse standard and academic tracks, thus creating invisible but powerful pressures that force more students into the upper academic tracks and thereby accomplishing a county goal, i.e., funneling more students into Honors/AP courses. We will term this move something like “raising standards/expectations for weaker students while maintaining high standards for the more academically advanced students.” My greater fear is that the county will not adequately staff these lower levels. That is, the number of students in these lower track classes will not be capped at 15 or 18, and teachers who teach exclusively the lower tracks will not be limited to having only four classes of them.

  2. “It is a bit analagous to the already affluent, who’ve done well economically over the last 20 years or more in this country, in part due to generous tax laws and tax cuts, complaining about an end to the Bush tax cuts that went disproportionately to them.”

    Your bias is showing, Mr. Crockett.
    I suppose I will be now be flamed as a naive parent. Silly me, I thought this was about the kids, not about politics.

    You’re not going to convince me that bringing down our best students benefits those students you identify as “weaker” and “lower track.”

  3. Today’s Daily Progressreports that weighted grades must remain.

    Here’s the Virginia Code section regarding weighting grades for AP courses.

    “8VAC20-160-50. AP courses.
    All advanced placement (AP) courses shall be weighted for computing the student’s grade point average.
    Statutory Authority
    Article VIII, §§4-5 of the Constitution of Virginia; §22.1-16 of the Code of Virginia.
    Historical Notes
    Derived from VR270-01-0015 §2.4, eff. May 25, 1988.

    Now the question is: why did Mr. Vale and the Steering Committee (which worked on this proposal for months) fail to review the existing State Law?

  4. There is no bias intended, Betty. What I offered is quite factual. Indeed, there are many people — lower and higher economic status — who think that Americans are overtaxed. But compared to developed countries like the U.S., the only fair comparison, that simply is not true….the U.S. has one of the lowest tax burdens of developed nations.

    Similarly, it is erroneous to believe that somehow going to unweighted grade point averages brings down “our best students.” How is that the case? I direct you to the Geiser/Santelices study of more than 80,000 students who applied to the University of California system over four years. The very best predictor of college grades and college completion was unweighted high school grade point average.

    Is the study biased too???

  5. Here is an even better question, Betty (and other readers): If recent research studies show that Advanced Placement courses and tests are not generally what people think they are (better, covering deep conceptual understandings, etc.), then why does the state require local school divisions to weight AP grades?

    Interested readers might review: National Research Council, 2002; Geiser and Santelices, 2004; Klopfenstein, 2005; Sadler and Tai, 2006; Adelman, 2006.

  6. Hmmmmm….let’s see…..grades did not used to be weighted but they are now…..but maybe we don’t want to undo the change to weighted…seems to ebb and flow with the times. Grades do not measure intelligence, barely learning at times, and simply reflect amount of work. Thus if you are appropriately placed in a level of a class then why should someone get more credit for having more inherent ability than someone else. If both work the same amount in different level classes, then are we that arrogant that we wish to create a system that says one person should be worth more than the other for the same work? This is simply the tip of an iceberg in a system that is telling kids that if they don’t take AP, go to a top school, they won’t be anything. This is simply wrong and erroneous info and no wonder kids dislike school now.

  7. My thoughts are this (please bear with me that I am still working through my opinions) –

    If one works harder and smarter, one should be rewarded. Whether that is with weighted grades or some other form of differentiating that a particular (AP) class is more stringent and academic than non- AP courses.

    It seems like common sense to me that an A in an AP course (which is perceived to be more difficult) would carry more weight than an A in a lower-level course. I don’t know – that just makes sense to me.

    I am a believer that socio-economic lines are more defining than racial ones. There may be significant overlap between the lines, but saying that one race is more or less able than another does a disservice to both.

    Richard –

    I am not sure I understand what you are saying. Those who choose to and are able to succeed in more challenging courses should be credited with those efforts.

    Regarding this –

    It is a bit analagous to the already affluent, who’ve done well economically over the last 20 years or more in this country, in part due to generous tax laws and tax cuts, complaining about an end to the Bush tax cuts that went disproportionately to them.

    This just makes sense. If someone makes $30k/year, they are going to pay less taxes than one who makes $100k/year. And thus, any percentage reduction will be more to those on the higher end of the payscale. Yet, those at the higher end still pay significantly more than those on the lower end.

    And this is where I insert the inevitable plug for the FairTax. 🙂

  8. Richard’s statement is not necessarily true, is it? A couple of quick examples make the point:

    1. Someone who makes, say, $40,000 or $45,00 a year and cannot afford to buy a house gets no deduction for rent payments. Someone who makes $150,000 or $200,000 a year and buys two houses gets two mortgage deductions to reduce taxable income, and can very well pay a lower effective tax rate than the lower-wage earner. Plus, all of the low-wage earner’s income is subject to the payroll tax (Social Security/Medicare), but only the first $90,000 of the higher-wage earner’s income is subject to that same tax. Plus, if the higher-income individual sells a house, he gets tax-free income ($250,000 for an individual and up to $500,000 if married).

    2. High income individuals who make take most of their income from investments, and capital gains sales, pay a tax rate of only 15%…..that can very easily be significatlty lower than many low-wage earners.

  9. Jim,
    someone SHOULD be rewarded for being smarter and working harder than their PEERS! This means that kids should be placed according to their cognitive level and not the level of work they are willing to do. Thus efficiency with, and amount of work become the variables, not factors that are beyond their control, e.g. inherent intelligence. Unless we feel that all are not entitled to being rewarded by working to their potential.
    Secondly, most kids take higher level classes not for the learning but for the chance to reward their GPA, and the subject matter is only secondary. The class of 06, the highest GPA in 10 years, had the situation where the top two student going into their last year were tied in GPA. One took a study hall the other an elective. Net results, the tie was broken because the study hall was non-credit and thus did not affect GPA, the elective was not weighted and thus even though the student’s grade was A, it lowered their GPA. Yup weighting certainly encourages working towards grade grubbing…errrrr…I mean learning.

    The comment about the tax cuts was not mine, it seems to be Jim’s!

    Thanx all for the debate.

  10. Secondly, most kids take higher level classes not for the learning but for the chance to reward their GPA, and the subject matter is only secondary.

    See, and the idealist in me never even contemplated that.

  11. First –

    Thank you all for commenting. This is how I (and others) learn about an issue that is vital and was certainly under many peoples’ radars.

    This is the kind of quote that gives me doubt about the intentions of those proposing these changes. Via the HooK

    “If this isn’t best practice, backed by research, it won’t go forward,” Vale says. “But I’m determined to keep coming back here until we show that it is.” (bolding mine)

  12. UPDATE: quote below is from an email newsletter to Henley parents–“Henley Matters.” The proposed recommendations of the steering committee (regarding weighted grades, grading scale, exams, core classes) have been shelved–for the 2007-08 school year. Stay tuned as these will continue to be reviewed for the 08-09 school year.

    GPA – Weighted Grades and Class Rank
    Levels in Core Classes
    Grading Scale
    Exams and Exam Options


    As a result of the significant feedback and engagement of our staff and community with reference to these four topics , additional research and data is being collected. Any recommendations brought forth must be supported by:

    1. Literature, Research and Achievement Data
    2. Best Practice as demonstrated by other high-performing school divisions
    3. Action Research.

    No recommended changes in these four areas are being brought forward at this time. The Program of Studies document will clearly indicate that these areas are under review and that any potential changes will be communicated to parents/students prior to the beginning of the school year.”

  13. If any recommendation to change the Albemarle County Program of Studies (POS) now must be accompanied by (a) literature, research and achievement data, (b) best practice as demonstrated by other high-performing school divisions, and (c) action research, then it seems very, very clear that there will be few if any new recommendations for POS changes to emerge. And apparently that is by design. Perhaps county school officials should have followed their own criteria at the outset of the POS debacle.

    But let’s consider several ideas and possibilities:

    1. Just because a high-performing school division (for example, in terms of SOL scores or AP tests given) does something does not mean that what it does is “best practice.” In fact, it is often the reverse. Too many school divisions institute “drill and kill” routines to get kids to pass SOL tests……but “drill and kill” is hardly best practice. Most school divisions academically segregate and sort their students…..again, hardly best practice.

    2. The research on UNweighted high school grade point average (UHSGPA) is pretty clear. It is the best predictor of college success (in terms of grades) and college completion. It predicts each better than AP courses taken or AP tests scores achieved. Why have parents not availed
    themselves of this research?

    3. Recent research (over the last half-dozen years) makes clear that Advanced Placement (AP) courses are not what people typically think they are. The National Research Council (2002), the University of California study (Geiser, 2004), the Texas study (Klopfenstein, 2005), the Sadler and Tai study (2006), and the ToolBox Revisited study (2006) all indicate that AP courses and tests do not convey the learning advantage commonly assumed to accrue with such endeavors.

    What IS true is that students use AP to “pad their transcripts.” I’ve heard this from literally dozens and dozens of students. One described it thusly: “It’s all about appearances, not about learning.”

    4. If the research is clear, then why not act on what we do know?

  14. stop ragging on mark crockett betty and go bake some cupcakes for the womens lib bake sale

  15. I debated deleting the above comment, but decided not to, despite the snarky nature.

    So, for the record, the “Mark Crockett” who has made several cogent comments is not the same “Mark Crockett” who made the comment at 4:45 am.

    I don’t want to delete comments, but will if I have to.

  16. No problem, Jim. I was too busy baking all weekend to notice! I assumed these were trolls making the equivalent of a phony phone call.

  17. Fear. Anger. Hope. Love. These four feelings are the only motivators.

    Fear of a parent causes you to obey them.
    Fear of a political candidate causes you to vote for his opponent.
    Love of a parent causes you to care for them.
    Love for country causes one to vote for the better candidate.
    Hope for _______ causes you to work for _______.

    Anger is the uncontrollable. When in a pure stage of rage, one cannot control what they do. Anger leads to the downfall of the other 3 motivators.

    After reading the above, would you agree that Betty fears the change away from weighted GPAs, while Mark hopes to show colleges who students really are grade wise?

    And can I ask you Betty, why do you defend this subject so dearly?

  18. From the Albemarle County Public Schools Policy:

    The Board believes that school-community cooperation and communication begin with the student, the parents, and the teacher and extend to other community persons, agencies and other staff members. The school must help the home know the student’s progress. The home must help the school understand the student’s strengths and problems. School-community communication is also needed at county wide levels, so that the concerns and knowledge of the community can bear upon educational decisions, and, further, so that community support for educational programs can be secured. [from ACPS Policy, Section K]

    My initial post and subsequent comments were consistent with this policy and were written to bring this issue to the attention of parents and the community.

  19. How can any reader of this message board claim to have knowledge of the “feelings” of a specific poster (in this case Betty G.), all the while saying that his hypothesis is evidence-based? After all, isn’t it the psychic realm, not the scientific realm, which would tell a poster that Mark “hopes”, while Betty, whom he disagrees with, “fears”? If a poster is really that perceptive, maybe he could contact some long lost relatives and ask them what toppings I should order on my pizza tonight?

    Some of the statements attributed to classes with differing levels of coursework are suspect.

    For instance, the statement that Level 2 and AP classes create equal amounts of work has not been my experience (“both work the same amount in different level classes”). I took both classes, and students in Level 2 did far less homework that AP students. Yes — AP students, including myself, took the AP classes for the extra GPA weight — guilty as charged. I can’t understand how we would get teens to reach higher if they are not rewarded for it? What rewards do you propose?

    2. If proponents of abolishing weighted-GPA’s are “evidence-based, then how would you explain this statement: “Just because a high-performing school division (for example, in terms of SOL scores or AP tests given) does something does not mean that what it does is “best practice.” In fact, it is often the reverse.”.

    This statement is contrary to the author’s suggestion that he only follows evidence-based data.

    3. The truth is, there is research that endorses both sides. MA and CA have stepped away from AP classes, while other states seem to be turning out research in favor of it.

    For example, here is a study that reached different conclusions than the study from California, listed above.

    Cognard, A. M. (1996). The case for weighting grades and waiving classes for gifted and talented high school students (RM96226). Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.

    Another comment was “If recent research studies show that Advanced Placement courses and tests are not generally what people think they are (better, covering deep conceptual understandings, etc.)”. If this comment is “evidence-based”, how would an evidence-based approach explain this data?

    Perhaps an acceptance of ALL the evidence explains why Betty defends the subject so “dearly”. And, since I’m hungry, Betty, feel free to send some of your baking success my way.

    Fearfully yours,


  20. Craig says that several states are “turning out research in favor of [AP].” If so, where is the research?

    The research article he cites by Anne Cognard (1996) is flawed at best. Unless Craig purchased the entire article, then he read the same abstract and summary that I read. The Gognard “study” is based on four areas: 1. interviews with teachers, students and counselors at four (yes, only four) high schools,; 2. questionnaires sent to state and regional high schools (the number of schools surveyed is not provided); 3. 300 national questionnaires (return rate is not specified); and, 4. short answer questions to “selected public and private colleges (the names and numbers of colleges surveyed is not provided).

    To say that somehow this “research study” is comparable to the University of California study (Geiser and Santelices) is a bit of a stretch.

    Nonetheless, the Cognard “study” states, regarding AP weighting:

    there is “no consistency among schools
    as to which classes or grades are
    weighted, how much each grade is
    weighted, and/or how labeling occurs.”

    Another study on weighting (Downs, 2000) in Maine notes that about half of school divisions weight grades for Ap, honors and advanced courses and half do not. The study points out that weights can make a grade of “A” range from four (4) to eight (8) points. The study also notes that since some states make scholarships available to the highest ranked graduates, there is increasing pressure from parents and students to weight courses. Downs cites advantages and disadvantages for the weighting of grades….the advantages seem to focus on ranking and competitiveness regarding a student’s GPA and more students taking weighted courses. The disadvantages include inequity for those who do not take weighted courses, a limiting of course selection for college-bound students, a weakening of the integrity of the weighted grade rendered, lowering of motivation to do well in weighted courses, more academic tracking and greater stress, and more parental pressures to take weighted courses. Downs cites a 1993 study showing that 74% of college admissions directors say that weighted grades offer no advantages to students, but that a comparison of similar transcripts of weighted and unweighted grades shows a clear advantage to weighted grades. But a third (33%) of college admissions directors say they prefer unweighted grades, 27% say they prefer weighted grades, 22% say they’d like specific points added to specific courses, 15% want honors and AP courses “be multiplied by a specific factor,” and 3% do not have a preference. When compililng their freshman class profiles, 47.5% of admissins directors use weighted grdaes, 48.1% use unweighted grades, and 4.4% use both weighted and unweighted grades.

    I suspect that Craig has yet to read the Geiser and Santelices study which clearly points out that the more GPA is weighted, the more predictive value (in terms of college grade performance and college completion) it loses. And I notice that Craig did not address the research on AP courses. Hmmmm.

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