Do Grades or Standardized Test Scores Make the Student?

(By Julie Zhu -- Montgomery Blair High School)
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I've started this letter many times over the past several months. After my gifted son received rejections from Virginia Tech, James Madison University and William and Mary, I figured it's time to warn other parents.

If you have a very bright student, home-school him. My son was reading a college-level book in third grade when the gifted education specialist recommended just that. Academically, we figured he'd learn and grow regardless of the environment, but his weakness was social interaction with his peers. We believed childhood should include high school sports teams and clubs, and we remembered being influenced by one or two teachers who were passionate about their subjects. We decided to leave him in public school.

Fast-forward to high school. To minimize frustration, we focused my son on learning, not grades. If he could get a 100 on an exam without doing the homework, we believed his time was better spent doing another activity in which he actually learned something.

His grades are less than stellar (3.275 GPA), but he has done very well on all his standardized tests (SAT: 800 verbal, 760 math; SAT subject tests: 800 higher math, 740 chemistry, 710 biology; ACTs: 34). As a junior, he took three AP tests and scored 5 in chemistry, 5 in calculus BC and 4 in U.S. history.

He's enrolled in the University of Cambridge program. He's taking seven Cambridge/AP classes, including third-year biology, third-year chemistry and second- and third-year physics combined. He was not encouraged or pushed by the counselors, but he is more motivated because he is learning at a pace he needs, and he has discovered his passion for science and math. He'll take AP exams in biology, physics, statistics and U.S. government this year.

So what's the problem? He has gone way beyond the class work to learn the material in-depth and has demonstrated his knowledge on national and international exams. Unfortunately, none of these exams is factored into high school grades or college admission decisions.

Prince William County's grading system requires a minimum of 18 assignments each quarter. My son received a C-plus in his chemistry class because he didn't do all of his assigned work and received zeros on many of the 18 assignments.

The class didn't move fast enough to cover all of the material, so he did different work -- on his own -- and handed notes to his teacher and classmates to help them. He's the only student in the history of the school to get a 5 on the AP chemistry exam, but this type of result never gets fed back into the course grade. He still got a C-plus, not an impressive grade for someone who wants to major in chemistry or chemical engineering.

We've spent considerable time talking to admissions counselors at Virginia Tech. They say they won't look at AP scores until after the students are admitted, don't look at SAT subject test scores and don't recognize the educational value or rigor of Cambridge classes.

I have a student who will place out of a year (about 44 credits) of college classes, but they won't let him in because, in their opinion, his GPA indicates he's lazy, he can't do college-level work and he's an underachiever because he scored well on his tests but has only a 3.275 GPA. They recommended that he go to a community college (where the classes are much less intense than the Cambridge curriculum), so he can prove he can handle college-level work. These are my tax dollars at work.

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