Editorial: Beyond weighted GPAs

As school board relents to parent pressure, a deeper look at school philosophy is needed

With a lifeline delicately crafted by Superintendent Max McGee, the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education succumbed Tuesday night to relentless pressure from a well-organized group of parents and unanimously approved the reporting of weighted grade point averages on the official high school transcripts of graduating seniors.

Given the intensity of the pressure and the other controversies the district has had to navigate in recent months, there was little doubt about the outcome.

Opponents to instituting weighted GPAs, both within the district and in the community, had effectively been overwhelmed and silenced by those who believed high-achieving students in Palo Alto should be given every possible competitive advantage in the college application process.

What began nine months ago with a single Palo Alto High School student complaining at a board meeting that her ability to obtain a merit scholarship from the University of Oregon was in jeopardy because Paly did not report weighted GPAs morphed into movement to reverse years of grade-reporting policy designed to moderate student competition.

When the Oregon problem first surfaced, administrators attempted to contain parent concern by assuring students and parents the district would go to bat for any student with a scholarship eligibility problem by sending letters documenting weighted GPAs to colleges on a case-by-case basis.

Palo Alto High School administrators and counselors, supported by McGee, attempted to mount a defense of the practice based on their professional judgment that reporting weighted GPAs would warp class choices, fuel an already hyper-competitive and stressful high school climate, and disadvantage some students. But parents conducted their own research and showed that reporting weighted GPAs was increasingly the norm at other high schools and asserting that Paly students taking AP or honors classes deserved every possible benefit from taking these rigorous classes. (With weighted grading, students enrolled in these classes get their grades bumped up one full point on their transcript.)

But it was the discovery that Gunn had been using a different reporting practice than Paly that enraged many parents and put the district and trustees in an untenable position of having conflicting practices at its two high schools.

It was yet another example of the harm of so-called site-based decision-making, an uncodified but well-entrenched philosophy that allows individual schools to adopt practices that conflict with each others'.

Faced with having to defend an illogical system that had the district's high schools preparing student transcripts using different GPA calculation methods and an increasingly agitated parent group, McGee went to work preparing the proposal that the board adopted Tuesday night.

It implements weighted grading for AP and honors classes taken during all but freshman year of high school, reflecting the strong opinions of Paly and Gunn counselors, teachers and administrators that the transition to ninth grade is difficult enough without adding grading incentives for taking certain classes. It also calls for a full evaluation of the new policy over the next few years, standardization of the process of determining which classes should offer weighted grades and a study on how to encourage and help low-income and minority students enroll and succeed in advanced classes.

Given the vociferous protest movement, McGee formulated a reasonable and fair solution that is acceptable to the vast majority of the concerned parents.

That said, we believe this debate masks a deep divide in the community that needs attention. As some vocal members of the community push for ever more academic rigor, others feel equally strong that the district is enabling an unhealthy competitive climate that needs to be toned down through such measures as enforcing the homework policy, addressing test stacking, cheating and grading practices and setting limits on AP classes.

These differences need to be brought out into the open and carefully discussed so that our district's educational philosophy doesn't evolve piecemeal as emotional issues like weighted GPAs surface and upset parents organize. Families with young children move to communities where schools reflect their values, and when we prioritize academic rigor over a more balanced approach, we become more attractive to those wanting those qualities. And gradually the culture changes.

These are complex issues demanding thoughtful and deliberate policy-making by the school board and community, and we hope the board will initiate those conversations in the wake of the weighted-GPA controversy.

Related content:

Guest opinion: Academic pressure can shortchange student engagement, passion

Guest opinions: Arguments for and against weighted GPAs


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14 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 12, 2017 at 11:37 am


How welcome, wonderful, and wise is the conclusion to this editorial.

There are indeed, and in spades, “complex issues demanding thoughtful and deliberate policy making by the school board and community”—an entire Big Picture of serious concerns that we’ve let fall by the wayside.

Our dedicated school officials have lately been driven by their inbox of very real but very limited, transitory, and secondary issues—school names, weighted grading, sanctuary campuses, the wording of a legal document, sex-ed curriculum—even as we live with unsolved District problems that have persisted for decades.

But our school leaders—endowed with intelligence, know-how, and conscience--have a historic opportunity to serve the community differently than their predecessors.

I choose the word “historic” with care.

In the Weekly for March 11, 1998--ALMOST TWENTY YEARS AGO--a headline reads:

“Youth speak out at town hall meeting--school pressure dominates discussion among Palo Alto teens"

In the Weekly for December 31, 2003--FOURTEEN YEARS AGO--a headline reads:

“Tough times for teens--in many ways, Palo Alto’s young were hardest hit in 2003”

In the Weekly for February 23, 2012--FIVE YEARS AGO--a headline reads:

“Academic stress a top mental health concern”

Yet tragically we went on to have five more teen suicides, the most recent only last April.

I regularly hear from middle-school parents frightened by the prospect of their kids moving on to Gunn or Paly. Why have we so terribly failed to create a community where the opposite is true—where the transition to high school is seen as a great upcoming adventure, to be filled with growth and discovery?

Today’s Weekly editorial directs our attention to key elements of the Big Picture of high-school stress: homework, cheating, grading practices, APs..

These are exactly among the concerns of Save the 2,008, the community alliance that for two and a half years has been urging on school officials a toolkit of simple, nuts-and-bolts adjustments—with the aim of undoing six key stressors in the culture of school life:

a) overcrowded classes with routinely more than 30 teenagers per room, distancing them from their teachers;

b) no nightly, confidential, expeditious online way for students to let teachers know the number of minutes their putting in on homework;

c) inadequate school-home communication around the price of multiple APs (in lost sleep, friendship-time, family-time, etc.);

d) relentless grade-reporting;

e) demoralizing academic fraud, countenanced by administrators and enabled by parents;

f) student’s all-day dependence on social media, even during class time, in order to get enough emotional support just to endure the daily school grind.

Eliminating these toxic stressors will open up breathing room for closer student-teacher working relationships (including the “lifelines” many kids create with trusted adults) and will let in the fresh air of campus trust, meaning, and belonging.

Let's stop trying to fix our kids, and instead fix our schools.

I hope that the city’s parents who agree with the Weekly will join the community alliance Save the 2,008, whose 560 signed supporters include teachers, therapists, PAMF physicians, faith leaders, engineers and CEOs, Stanford professors, music and art and drama instructors, and renowned authors Vicki Abeles (filmmaker of “Race to Nowhere”), Julie Lythcott-Haims, and Alfie Kohn.

Everyone is welcome to join us! All it takes is the keystrokes of your name at:

Warm wishes,

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Chairman, Save the 2,008

28 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on May 12, 2017 at 11:49 am

Yes, let's move beyond this and look more deeply into grading practices.

I would like the Board to take up the issue of "grading on a curve". i firmly believe this adds to academic stress in our high schools, and perhaps even earlier.

In a district like ours where there are a lot of strong kids (academically), the notion that only a certain percentage of a given classroom should get an "A" is ridiculous.

I hear 2 things: "our teachers don't do that so this is nothing to worry about", but I also hear "our teachers always grade on a curve, and besides our teacher union demand that teachers be given leeway to grade as they like".

So I say, let's have the Board look into this and develop a formal policy.

41 people like this
Posted by Unified Policy
a resident of Midtown
on May 12, 2017 at 1:04 pm

@PA Online: "Board of Education succumbed Tuesday night to relentless pressure from a well-organized group of parents"

This editorial makes this group of parents sound like a roving band of "relentless" thugs who forced something on PAUSD. In fact, this heated debate boiled down to a simple request of PAUSD: Paly should provide the same wGPA that Gunn was already providing its students. We are a "Unified" school district after all. I was not part of this "well organized group of parents", but greatly appreciated the immense amount of research they conducted. Their data driven approach and facts presented to the BOE were invaluable as I was formulating my own opinions on the subject. Thank you "well organized parents"!

Thanks to this "well organized group of parents" who presented well researched public data, the BOE, Superintendent, teachers, other parents and students - anyone willing to listen - could move past an emotionally based discussion to a fact based discussion. (This data is something I would've expected the BOE to gather instead of parent volunteers, so this group of parents basically did the BOE's job for them). I personally was extremely grateful to have the FACTS instead of false assumptions (like the commonly touted false assumption that wGPA leads to more stress, which was debunked in a report distributed by a well respected local group out of Stanford, Challenge Success). I applaud the BOE for reviewing the facts, conducting clear data analysis, and bringing our two high schools in line with the same policies.

On that note, I also agree with PA Online: different site-based policies are harmful to the district and our students. I am very glad to see that both high schools will be following the same protocol on reporting GPA instead of operating as their own little fiefdoms based on the whim of each high school's administration of the moment.

26 people like this
Posted by Ze'ev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 13, 2017 at 12:15 pm

"Unified Policy" has already addressed the fake issue of tying "pressure" to academic achievement and enrollment in honors and AP courses. There simply is no evidence for this tie in PAUSD, despite District's staff desperately looking for such evidence for months on end. Yet this does not stop some from continuing to baselessly tie academic expectations to student stress. It is unfortunate that the Palo Alto Weekly follows them in this wrong-headed and unsupported argument.

If PAUSD and PA Weekly truly believe that incentives for taking more demanding academics are wrong, they should object to them in any grade. The excuse that ninth grade is in some way special or difficult is promoted by Max and HS principals, with some board member support, yet is has no broad support in the community or in evidence from 9th grade student surveys. Comparing the difficulty of a college freshman move, with its new location out of town and often out of state, with leaving home for the first time, and with a completely new academic environment and expectations, with the minor difficulty of moving to a new high school half a mile away in the same *unified* school district, borders on demagogy. Yet that is exactly the comparison the superintendent did at the board meeting trying to convince us how terrible the move to 9th grade is for students.

If PAUSD and PA Weekly truly believe that incentivizing academic achievement is wrong and they should be their own intrinsic reward as the Superintendent argues, they should immediately push for teachers and staff to give up on their salary incentives for earning higher academic degrees (Master's, Doctorate). After all, robust research shows that such additional academic degrees are quite useless for teacher effectiveness. If incentivizing academics is wrong and they should be their own intrinsic reward, it should be wrong for everyone.

21 people like this
Posted by Ze'ev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 13, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Incidentally, the Board and the Superintendent agreed that PAUSD will monitor honors and AP enrollment to see how their wGPA decision works. They even agreed to create a task force for that. What they did not tell us is whether they expect this policy to reduce Honors and AP enrollment, or increase it. The fact that the staff is silent on this basic question speaks volumes.

2 people like this
Posted by Potential
a resident of Barron Park
on May 14, 2017 at 9:03 am

It seems to me any approach that tries to limit opportunities for kids whose learning style matches those opportunities, in order to level the playing field for those whose learning style is less of a match, is misguided and likely to hurt everyone. If the district thinks APs are so bad, why offer them? If we are going to offer them, we embrace what works for those who benefit from them. The point is, they work for some kids. If the district made options available for all kinds of learners, per its own vision, then the AP types would have what they need and so would everyone else. Competition pressure would drop because kids wouldn't be competing with each other in the same exact race.

For example, why are we even grading kids this way, through a constant stream of tests and burdensome homework? If a kid gets a grade that isn't perfect, isn't that a sign that we should help him/her learn something they missed? We have all these local ed experts like Jo Boaler and Sal Khan, and they're all saying the six sigma problem can be overcome if we stop sorting the kids and start educating each to their potential.

Our Palo Alto student took an AP science class freshman year, but didn't get credit for it as an AP - took it online, and chose it just for the advanced pace, did the work in an interest-driven way and didn't bother to take the test. Transcript shows only Biology. As a sophomore, same child took another AP, but decided to get AP credit and turned everything in and took the test. Comparing the two, I would say the overhead of the latter case was not worth it. There is a huge educational and life opportunity cost. My kid would rather be doing interesting things like doing a year's worth of math every semester, again, self driven and non-graded. Having graduate level math before leaving high school will look far better on a transcript than APs, if that is soneone's goal, especially since it has been interest driven. (You probably have guessed we are not schooling in the district.) The AP race was not for us, but the district didn't offer an alternative for academic interest and success for that child's needs. The answer here is to follow through on the promise of helping each child to their potential, offering something for them, too -- not in restricting kids for whom what we offer works great.

There seems to be an attitude that if kids aren't on that intense AP track, they're wannabe washouts, and if it isn't for them they should settle for less. That's what's causing the stress and competition, the lack of good alternatives, not the APs. Hurting the opportunities for those who benefit from the APs is only going to breed resentment, not help. What we settled for In our case was keeping and expanding the education and ending the overhead our student couldn't handle. Test scores went way up, not down, even though the standardized tests are now the only tests the same student takes. We didn't have such an option in the district, but we shoukd. It would help create alternatives for different types if kearners to succeed on a different, but not inferior, path.

This is one instance in which I do not think the district deserves the criticism" They instead deserve praise for listening. I hope it's not the end but a starting place for improvements.

McGee did absolutely the right thing by listening to all the parents and not taking away what is working for the group that spoke out. Now it's time to support the students for whom the current system does not work. Again, that would not be the next thing if the administration hadn't been so responsive on this issue. School districts are supposed to hear the local ommunity - don't take away what is working for those families. Offer better alternatives to those who need something else. I do have suggestions but I'm not the right messenger. But I will say that offering alternatives does not have to take years. If Palo Alto offered something like COIL in Fremont, for SOME kids things would improve overnight, and so would a lot of unhealthy competition (kids who felt trapped would instead be supported to do what they need).

Like this comment
Posted by Potential
a resident of Barron Park
on May 14, 2017 at 9:10 am

PS - COIL is an option Palo Alto kids can take advantage of now, if they have space. But the opportunities would be far better if the program were offered in their home district.

7 people like this
Posted by ChooseBoth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 14, 2017 at 9:30 pm

The editorial falls into the trap of imagining we have to choose between weighted grades or low stress. Why not have both?

Most of the stress is caused by bad teaching, inconsistent grading, test stacking and project stacking. And the sleep deprivation this induces. Sexual harassment by staff doesn't help.

None of that has anything to do with academic challenges. I see very little conflict between choosing an AP class, and being harassed or taught poorly or treated unfairly.

So here is a really great idea: how about we let kids have the flexibility to choose challenges, and then provide a supportive environment with a quality teacher, fair grading, follow the homework policy, eliminate test and project stacking, you know - how about giving them a fair shot at succeeding. Oh and stop trying to have sex with the students- that would be good too.

Then a weighted grade wouldn't be a stressor - it would just represent the work they did.

Basically if the schools just eliminate all the stupid shit they do to MAKE STRESS, then there would be less stress. It's not that hard to imagine...

10 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on May 15, 2017 at 4:01 am

I was invited into a WGPA e-mail group. I was so shocked by the aggressive and relentless nature of how this
very well organized group went about changing the practice of grade reporting. If you even so much as
mentioned an idea that did not fall directly in line with their agenda, you were shot down immediately. The glossy
brochures, skewed statistics and avalanche of "proof" that they were right was like [portion removed.]

I believe that there is no beginning or end, for this vocal group of parents to get their way. So sad to see this,
be part of it. [Portion removed.]

21 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 15, 2017 at 6:26 am

Huh, so they worked hard, argued their points, supported them with data, and put together materials to inform and persuade others. And they showed up at meetings to support their positions. That sounds pretty good to me.

Plus, when the district did surveys, it turned out that a significant majority of parents and students agreed. So they were in fact a vocal majority. And in the end, Dr. McGee and the Board unanimously agreed with the vast majority of what they asked for.

Disappointing that the response to this outstanding community effort is that you call them scary and unstable. That's hurtful. I am proud to have people like that in our community.

6 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on May 15, 2017 at 7:03 am

"Huh, so they worked hard, argued their points, supported them with data, and put together materials to inform and persuade others. And they showed up at meetings to support their positions. That sounds pretty good to me."

I guess we are going to have to agree to disagree. I did not see it the way you describe.

Many people were silenced, myself included. [Portion removed.] Just my opinion.

12 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 15, 2017 at 8:34 am

In what way did they "silence" you? If they formed their own email group to share and collaborate, that probably was not an effective place to advocate for a different point of view. Did they somehow stop you from forming your own email group; stop you from speaking at public meetings; stop you from sharing your view with others, writing op-eds in the paper, writing letters to officials; call you "unstable"or other hurtful names? If they did, then I agree, that was wrong. If not, I'm not sure what the complaint is about.

People who actively advocate for their views do our community a service.

14 people like this
Posted by Potential
a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2017 at 9:11 am

@Palo Alto,
Unfortunately and sadly, the district has a history of calculating attacks against families and parents who try to make them change or fix problems (even enlisting teachers and PTA parents in interpersonal slams). The district listening here was a hopeful departure from it but your post was like a scary flashback to that. You made a fair point until you used it to try to attack the people personally.

If parents don't work hard at an issue they care about, they won't succeed, and they are likely to face personal backbiting if they don't create a strong coalition. You seem to confuse hard work and effective action with mental instability, which unfortunately is all too familiar a district power tactic of the past. I have strong doubts that "unstable" would have been able to create such a diaciplined coalition and effort. (Or is it the discipline you are attacking, their being "organized"? Which is it, "organized" or " unstable"?)

I'm very sorry to see that once again, any parents seeking to make a difference through action are called names like that. I hope those who disagreed will examine how they can take positive steps to create opportunity for all instead of assuming that taking away some students's opportunities does that.

[Portion removed.]

I'm proud that the school district managed a good discussion and listened. It makes me hopeful.

6 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on May 15, 2017 at 1:14 pm

@Parent & @Potential

Once again, we will just have to agree to disagree.

There is no way I am going to go down the rabbit hole again. There is no beginning or ending to
this discussion. I was really surprised by that fact. Many of us were silenced by the shear force
used in the aggressive stance many took on this issue. There is now a WGPA at both schools.

This editorial speaks to how many of us felt in this process. That's why there is a written editorial. You can
disagree with it, but that does not make it go away.

I am not going to spend one more second on this! Have a great day, it's a real beauty!!!

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