There was a stark difference in opinion at the Palo Alto Board of Education meeting Tuesday night on the value of reporting high school students' weighted grade point averages (GPAs), with parents, students and some board members defending students' right to scholarships and college admission, and school administrators arguing that the practice is antithetical to the district's efforts to change the tide on youth mental-health issues.
A district proposal to maintain the status quo of only reporting unweighted grades on students' official transcripts but to end a small difference between how Gunn and Palo Alto high school counselors report weighted GPAs to colleges and universities -- Gunn counselors automatically add the number in a counselor report section on the Common Application, while Paly staff does not -- struck an emotional chord with many in the packed board room.
Upset parents and students from both high schools urged the board to give students the choice to report their weighted GPA if they need it for admissions or to qualify for a merit-based scholarship. They disagreed with the district's perspective that reporting weighted grades will fuel unhealthy competition and academic stress, arguing that it is an administrative issue unrelated to those very present issues in Palo Alto.
Out of 27 people who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, only four, all Paly teachers or staff, opposed weighted grades for their potential negative impact on student well-being.
While at least one board member and the high school principals have been looking into the practice for more than a year, it was one Paly senior's comments at a board meeting two weeks ago that brought the issue to the full board's and community's attention.
Maya Katz's unweighted GPA puts her at the cusp of qualifying for a four-year, $36,000 merit-based scholarship at one of her top school choices, the University of Oregon. The school is unique in that it will not accept a letter from Paly that reports her weighted GPA, but rather only looks at what is on her transcript.
She told the board at its Sept. 27 meeting that she felt like her "rights as a student have been robbed" after finding out about the difference in grade-reporting practices between Paly and Gunn. (Although a Gunn senior would face this same problem given the fact that the University of Oregon is not on the Common Application.)
While the schools have in the past and per the district's recommendation would continue to contact schools directly on students' behalf and send official letters reporting weighted grades when necessary, parents argued that this is not a solution. Their concerns also stretched beyond qualifying for scholarships to students' entry into desired colleges.
"No student should be deprived of their choices, to go to the schools they wish to simply because our school administration fails to provide his or her weighted GPA upon request," said Jenny Zhang, the parent of a freshman and junior at Gunn.
Gunn senior Shannon Yang asked the board to consider a sometimes overlooked issue in affluent Palo Alto of college affordability. She said her weighted GPA would qualify her for some scholarships but her unweighted GPA would not, urging the board to "keep these doors open" for students.
Another Gunn senior said he will be one of three children in his family attending college next year, and is depending on his weighted GPA to qualify for merit-based scholarships to pay for what his parents cannot afford.
"Why would we put weights on the legs of our students?" said Trustee Camille Townsend, who among her colleagues was perhaps the most critical of the discrepancy between the two high schools. Townsend made a failed motion at one point during the meeting to add weighted GPAs to official transcripts and send them directly to colleges and universities.
She called the district's current practice "obscure" and "wrong," particularly if it is limiting students' ability to pay for the college of their choice.
Students also stressed the importance of incorporating their voices into the board's decision, and seeking more feedback from the many students who are unaware of the difference in grade-reporting practices between the two high schools. They said weighted grades would actually reduce student stress, because the bonus points can boost a lower grade.
Weighted grades rightly "recognize" students' hard work in more advanced courses, parents and students said -- a motivating rather than harmful factor when it comes to their academic and mental health and well-being, many said.
But Paly staff members who spoke painted a different picture, one of daily meetings with stressed-out and often high-achieving students, who feel "inadequate" compared to their peers.
"Personally I see the toll of this on students daily when I have to remind them that they are worth more than their numbers, that they are not inadequate," said Sandra Cernobori, a longtime college advisor at Paly.
Many schools themselves recalculate applicants' GPA to consider what they value most, Cernobori noted, from looking at only core classes to assigning different weight to AP and honors classes or even stripping the weighted grades.
Cernobori, along with Paly Principal Kim Diorio and Assistant Principal Vicki Kim wrote a "position paper" last week with the full support of teachers and staff recommending against the use of weighted GPAs. Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann told the Weekly that her school counselors agree, and that weighted grades should only be made available if required for scholarship reasons, though the full administration, faculty and staff have not have the opportunity yet to discuss the issue.
Longtime Paly guidance counselor Susan Schultz, reading from a statement signed by all of Paly's guidance counselors and school psychologists, worried that a decision to report weighted grades would mean the district's "message to students about trying to achieve balance between school work and extracurriculars becomes contradictory."
And Diorio, who leads the school's crisis-response team and works with the guidance department and wellness team on a regular basis, said it is those professionals who know best the negative effect weighted grades could have on students.
Board Vice President Terry Godfrey and board member Ken Dauber said they will look to the schools' professionals for guidance on their ultimate decision.
"A professional opinion with consistency and with a heavy dose of student voice -- that's what I'm after," Godfrey said.
Dauber later said he will not "second-guess our principal, school psychologists, school counselors and teachers at both schools who are telling us that to make weighted grades, GPAs a more salient aspect of how students understand their progress would have deleterious effects on the educational environment."
Townsend disagreed, arguing it is a board rather than site decision. She also took issue with the correlation drawn by Superintendent Max McGee and school staffs between weighted grades and increased stress, saying, "that is so unrelated right now."
Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell, who requested the agenda item Tuesday night, said the district needs to determine not only a policy moving forward long term, but a short-term solution for any current high school seniors who need weighted grades to qualify for a scholarship.
McGee said he would provide a short-term proposal at the board's next meeting on Nov. 1.
Board President Heidi Emberling agreed it is the "right thing to do to report both GPAs for current seniors." Longer term, the two high schools' practices should be aligned, she said, and it should be an automatic, uniform process for all students.
While the district must "be vigilant about practices that add stress to student lives," the stressors she hears about most are about homework and test and project stacking, not the presence of weighted grades.
Ankit Ranjan, Gunn's student board representative, agreed. He said many Gunn students feel like the conversation is a "waste of the district's time" and a distraction from the deeper issue: a deep-seated, unhealthy focus on grades, test scores and college admissions.
"We're talking about this in terms of culture," Ranjan said. "It seems like we want to have both the utilitarian benefits of having weighted GPA while also having the cultural benefits of not having that number."
Paly's board representative, David Tayeri, disagreed, arguing it is a small but "tangible thing that can be changed to help students."
Both students emphasized that many of their peers are uninformed about the topic and urge the district to fully inform students before seeking their input.
McGee said the district plans to hold student lunches and focus groups at Paly and Gunn, as well as at least one town hall meeting and online webinar to further discuss the subject.
How would the candidates vote?
As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the candidates who are running for Palo Alto Board of Education how they would vote -- and why -- on significant issues that the board takes action on before November.
This week, the Weekly asked the three non-incumbent candidates how they would vote on a staff proposal to to report only unweighted GPAs on official transcripts, but that counselors provide juniors and seniors with a “short-form” letter that includes their weighted GPA and will provide an official letter to any institution that uses weighted grades as a qualifying criteria for scholarships.
Whether weighted grades are issued, all colleges know that Gunn and Paly operate on a very high level and will take that into consideration on admissions. I am supportive of diversity and creating unique educational experiences at different schools within the district. But this is not an educational issue; it is a simple administrative process, and should be standardized between the two high schools so it is done exactly the same for all students.
My primary focus would be to ensure that the colleges were getting the information they wanted, therefore I would side on having more information than less. ... This (the staff proposal) sounds fair to me as it will empower the student and family to ensure the information for each application will be included, without forcing anyone to have a weighted grade submitted when the institution does not require or want one.
Our priority has to be to put students first. We know at this point that some students are being disadvantaged, and many parents were concerned enough to come speak out on this issue.
In the short-term, we should report weighted GPA in a way colleges will accept. That short-term policy won’t affect student stress, course selection, etc., but it will help students right away.
To make a long-term decision, I'd want to see what similar districts do, and why, and more detail on how reported GPAs impact students’ admissions and scholarship chances. I'd also like to hear more from parents, students, and our education professionals.
It’s important, as a student board representative mentioned, that this issue not distract us from other sources of student stress, like homework loads, test and project stacking, grading alignment and teacher feedback. These seem likely to impact stress more than how we report GPAs.
My priorities when considering this important issue include consistency between the school sites, attending to equity and ensuring that all students have access to any and all financial resources available to support them in college.
We cannot make a decision about the best policy to put in place until we have more information. The district is currently gathering data from a range of colleges to determine how they use the GPAs that are reported and what information is most useful to them. I look forward to learning the facts and am grateful for the wide-range of community input on this issue.