Among the many differences, large and small, between Palo Alto and Gunn high schools is a discrepancy between how school counselors report students' grade point averages (GPAs) to colleges and universities.
Though both schools have long reported only students' unweighted GPAs on official transcripts, Gunn counselors also report students’ weighted GPAs -- which provide extra points for honors and Advanced Placement (AP) level courses -- in a school counselor form on the Common Application.
While Paly students and parents are concerned that this difference in practice between the two schools negatively affects students’ college options, particularly their ability to qualify for merit-based scholarships at some out-of-state universities, district and site administrators worry that weighted GPAs contribute to unhealthy academic competition and student stress.
At the request of trustee Melissa Baten Caswell, the school board will discuss the high schools’ grade-reporting practices at its Tuesday meeting instead of in January, when it was originally scheduled for discussion.
Backed with consensus from administrators, counselors and teacher advisors at the high schools, Superintendent Max McGee is recommending that the high schools continue to report only unweighted grades on transcripts, but that counselors provide juniors and seniors with a “short-form” letter that includes their weighted GPA.
Counselors would also inform students that the district will send a letter on their behalf to any institution that uses weighted grades as a qualifying criteria for scholarships, McGee proposes.
Reporting weighted GPAs would, McGee wrote in a staff report, contribute to a "Performance Arms Race," a "hyper-competitive culture and self-inflicted pressure to get As and to take as many APs as possible in order to get admitted to the 'best' colleges and universities," that the district has heard repeatedly about, particularly in the wake of several student deaths by suicide in 2014 and 2015.
"While we have mitigated this pressure through a host of programs, services, and actions ... we are in a highly competitive environment and do not want to make policy decisions or change practices that will increase the level of competition for grade points and consequently raise stress to unhealthy levels that will put some students at risk," he wrote. "Having invested over a million dollars in health and wellness at the high schools these past two years, it is counterintuitive to condone grade weighting that will raise academic stress and it is antithetical to our District 'Wellness and Safety' goal."
Weighted GPAs could increase students' focus on grades rather than learning, and could also result in students taking fewer electives, said McGee, adding that weighted grades could also disproportionately affect minority and low-income students, given the district’s goal to increase their access to advanced classes.
Most high schools in the area report weighted grades, according to the district, with the exception of the Fremont Unified School District.
McGee's report notes that the University of California and California State University systems recalculate all reported GPAs to give more weight to specific honors and AP classes. Most universities will also accept a letter from a student’s school that provides his or her weighted GPA if it’s not on the official transcript, he wrote. His report emphasizes that colleges and universities consider many other factors beyond GPA in their application processes.
The University of Oregon, however, is an exception to this rule. The university will only use the GPA on an applicant’s official transcript, and offers several merit scholarships with specific GPA cutoffs.
Taly Katz, the mother of a Paly senior applying to the University of Oregon, told the board at its Sept. 27 meeting that her daughter’s unweighted GPA is at the school’s threshold for a four-year, $36,000 scholarship for out-of-state students. She urged the board to discuss the issue now, rather than later in the year, in the hopes that any change could help current seniors.
Her daughter Maya Katz told the board that she felt like her "rights as a student have been robbed" after finding out about the difference in reporting practices between Paly and Gunn. She said that Paly students are not informed that their weighted GPA will not be reported when they sign up for AP classes. The lack of a weighted GPA could put her in a position to take on more student loans, she said, and ultimately affect her decision on where to go to college.
Maya’s school, however, staunchly opposes reporting weighted grades. With the full support of teachers and staff, Paly Principal Kim Diorio, Assistant Principal of Student Services Victoria Kim and college advisor Sandra Cernobori penned a "position paper" on the practice that draws a definitive line between weighted GPAs and a "culture of competition and stress."
Its potential negative impacts -- increased competition and an emphasis on grades rather than learning, among others -- far outweigh the positives, Diorio, Kim and Cernobori wrote. Diorio shared the paper last week with the school’s site council and parent-teacher association.
According to the paper, in the last 10 years, Paly’s college advisors have never needed to report a weighted grade for a student’s admission to any school. On the rare occasions ("less than 1 percent," they wrote) when a college will only accept a weighted grade, the school advises students to meet with their teacher-advisor and/or a college advisor, who will contact the college on their behalf. In the past, Paly has written letters or spoken directly with admissions representatives on the phone to report a weighted grade, the paper states.
The paper recommends ending Gunn’s practice of counselors reporting the weighted grades on the Common Application, stating that both schools’ guidance departments have agreed that "this is a step in the right direction for our entire school district."
"It is our belief that as both high schools continue to work on strengthening existing school cultures by focusing on wellness, redefining success and mastery learning, in tandem we will reduce the anxiety and fear that accompanies that college admissions process," the paper states.
McGee wrote in his report that he does not recommend changing reporting practices in the middle of the school year, but "absent any new policy or administrative regulation is eager to align practices for 2017-18 and beyond."
In other business Tuesday, the board will hear a report on the high schools’ AP, SAT and ACT results; a proposed board policy that would establish procedures for students conducting advanced research on human and animal subjects; and an authorization to solicit bids for renovation of a classroom at Paly.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.