After three hours of discussion and passionate pleas from more than 30 parents and high school students, the Palo Alto school board Tuesday decided in a 5 to 0 vote to report weighted grade-point averages (GPAs) for current seniors.
Both unweighted and weighted GPAs will be included on seniors' mid-year transcripts, which are sent to colleges and universities in January; the district will also provide the weighted average to any student who might need it before then. The board deferred longer term action on GPA-reporting practices until a later date.
Many of the parents and students who filled the standing-room-only meeting urged the reporting of weighted GPAs as a way to honor students' hard work in more rigorous classes and to help them secure both scholarships and college admission. This viewpoint was echoed in online petitions launched in the last week that have collectively gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
The board's student representatives from Palo Alto and Gunn high schools also cast their preferential votes in support of weighted GPAs. Gunn's Ankit Ranjan warned the board that to not consider students' opinions on this issue could further "erode the trust that students have with their district."
The board's decision rejected the recommendations of the superintendent, principals of both high schools and dozens of high school faculty and staff, who oppose reporting weighted GPAs for the threat they believe the practice poses to students' well-being.
Students and parents from both high schools argued that reporting weighted GPAs is a straightforward, administrative action unconnected to academic stress.
"This is not a conversation about stress. This is a conversation about reporting what my actions were in high school," said Paly senior Maya Katz, who brought the grade-reporting issue to the board several weeks ago after realizing her weighted GPA would qualify her for a $36,000 merit scholarship at the University of Oregon. "If you want to talk about stress, if you want to talk about rigor in different classes ... that's a completely different conversation."
Parents and students repeatedly described weighted grades as a motivating benefit, not a harmful deterrent. Paly parents felt their children had been put at a disadvantage — many of them unknowingly until several weeks ago, they said. While Gunn counselors report seniors' weighted GPA on the Common Application, Paly counselors do not. Neither school has been reporting the weighted average on official transcripts.
Most high schools in the area, with the exception of the Fremont Unified School District, report weighted grades, according to the district.
Parents and students urged the board to make a timely decision, many opposing Superintendent Max McGee's proposal to convene an advisory committee that would work for several months this school year to research and make a recommendation to him on reporting practices. McGee had recommended against reporting weighted grades this year and for creating this committee to take the time needed to find a solution to what he described as a complex problem.
School-board candidate Todd Collins suggested the board instead create a "focused fact-finding committee" with a much shorter timeline — one to two months — and a very specific charge. This would help the board to "face up to the issue, get the data, make the decision, implement and move on to the next thing," he said.
Consensus quickly emerged on the board about how to solve the problem in the short term, with majority support for adding weighted grades to current seniors' transcripts. Most board members also rejected the idea of putting together a committee, which they said could take away resources and attention from other important issues facing the district.
One of those issues has been wrapped into the weighted grades debate: achieving a goal of having more students of color and low-income students in Advanced Placement and honors courses (both of which provide students the extra points for a weighted GPA — that is, a 5.0 rather than a 4.0 for an A).
"Shame on us," said Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell, pointing to the low numbers of minority and low-income students in AP classes. "We should be doing whatever we can to make sure those kids have every opportunity. In order to do that, honestly, I believe we need to give them some reward for taking that extra step."
Sara Woodham, parent and chair of advocacy group Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), said that reporting weighted grades would likely have a minimal effect on minority and low-income students.
"This tactic, I think, masks — not remediates — the core problem, which is this demographic needs support starting in elementary school to allow them to access an equitable range of APs beyond a small subsection of offerings," she said.
Board Vice President Terry Godfrey, her voice breaking as she held back tears, worried that the board had heard from the vocal majority of students and parents but not those who have told her they were unwilling to speak publicly in a packed room with people applauding aggressively for those in support of weighted grades.
"If you're a senior this year and you've made choices along the way to be with your family, to take care of your grandparents, to go fishing, to try your hand at woodworking, to try your hand at art and you get told today that weighted grades are going to go on transcripts against kids you're competing with at Paly and Gunn, you might have made different choices along the way," she said. "I just know that student voice is important from those who aren't brave enough to stand there but still count and still matter."
Godfrey asked if reporting weighted grades could disadvantage rather than benefit any current students. Paly Principal Kim Diorio said that there are more than 50 students — who are either minority, low-income or special-education students — who would actually have a lower grade point average if the weighted amount is reported. (This is because Paly uses the University of California/California State University weighting system, which doesn't count ninth-grade courses nor non-UC approved courses.)
The board also discussed the two high schools' weighting methodologies, which are different. While Paly uses the UC/CSU system, Gunn has tweaked that and has its own method for calculating the weighted average. Board member Ken Dauber suggested that both schools ultimately use the well-established UC/CSU model, which the two principals supported.
For this year, however, the board agreed that the schools would continue to use their current weighting systems.
Unlike at the previous board discussion on this topic two weeks ago, when several Paly administrators and staff spoke during public comment to voice their strong opposition to weighted grades, speakers on Tuesday night were exclusively parents and students in support of the practice.
But 68 tenured Paly teachers from a range of departments, from history to physical education, signed an open letter on Monday urging the board to "pause in your rush to make a decision" that they believe would do more harm than good.
The letter calls placing weighted GPA on transcripts a "critically misinformed choice" and an "anathema to the district and school's commitment to student well-being." The letter lists seven ways the practice could reverse progress the district has made in recent years to reduce academic stress and support student mental health, including "elevate AP culture at the expense of electives," "disadvantage students from families of limited means" and "confuse a limited scholarship application problem with an admissions application problem." The teachers especially opposed making the change in the middle of the college-application process this fall.
Though the letter was written "without coordination with — or direction from — Paly administration," it echoes a position paper Diorio and other staff members wrote two weeks ago, as well as a separate statement backed by all of Paly's guidance counselors and school psychologists.
On Wednesday, after the board meeting, Paly senior Joelle Dong launched another online petition, calling on the trustees to reconsider their "appalling" decision.
"This decision creates a culture of competition counter to the one our district claims they aim to create," Dong wrote. "We believed that the school board would protect our students rather than fuel a pressure-cooker culture."
McGee will return at a future meeting with a proposal for the longer term. Most board members said they want to align practices between the two high schools and have clear, uniform, well-communicated guidelines so the "burden" for asking for a weighted GPA is not on students or families, as board President Heidi Emberling said. Board member Camille Townsend asked that the board create a policy to reflect whatever they ultimately decide. Under current board policy, the superintendent shall recommend to the board how to calculate grade point averages and whether weighting will be provided for honors courses.
Paly's student board representative David Tayeri as well as Dauber lauded the community's engagement on this issue and said they wished other important issues before the board would receive the same level of attention.
"We have larger issues around stress and academic achievement and student achievement," Dauber said. "I really urge you all to come back for those conversations because those are the critical conversations to have — around homework load, around grading consistency between courses and teachers, test and project stacking.
"Those are really the issues that are going to move our students towards more well-being and towards less stress," he said.
As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we have been 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 Superintendent McGee's original recommendation and the board's final motion.
Jay Cabrera: Cabrera did not respond to request for comment.
Todd Collins: I support the motion that the board passed to report weighted and unweighted GPAs on current seniors' transcripts. The evidence presented -- from the community, from other districts, and from the students themselves -- strongly supports that this is the most effective way to help our students for college admissions and scholarships. And we need to move quickly to make sure we give the best options to this year's senior class.
I do not support a community and staff advisory committee to study this issue, as the superintendent suggested. This issue doesn't merit such a lengthy and involved process, especially since we have other more important issues to focus on, including our structural budget deficit, homework and grading policies, special education program and minority and low-income achievement. We need to face up to this issue, address it and move on to the next.
Jennifer DiBrienza: Reporting both weighted and unweighted GPA is an important accommodation in the short term. If it can help students in the college process, our community is better served by listing both.
Moving forward, the district must seek data to understand student performance in class offerings, choices among non-weighted electives, and measures of student health to confirm that we are reinforcing our values with our policies. We must provide every student with the opportunities and supports to take on challenges and pursue interests.
As an educator, my priorities are ensuring we are serving all students and cultivating deep learners. As a researcher, my priority is using data to guide our policies.
I look forward to focusing the board's attention on policies that have the most impact on student health, equity and access, and an engaging and rigorous academic experience; and using data to determine what those are.