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.