AP classes' draw extends beyond extra grade points

By Jay Mathews
Monday, May 31, 2010

Like all human beings, educators accept rules and procedures that make sense to them, even when academic types wave data in their faces proving they are wrong. That appears to be the case with one of the most powerful and widespread practices in Washington area high schools -- the extra grade point for college-level courses.

Thousands of students are taking panicked breaths wondering whether what I am about to reveal will incinerate their grade-point averages, keep them out of any college anyone has heard of and consign them to a life of begging for dollar bills like that scruffy guy on Lynn Street south of Key Bridge.

A new study shows that grade weighting for Advanced Placement courses is unnecessary. Schools have been promising students 3 grade points (usually given for a B) if they get a C in an AP course so they will not be frightened away by its college-level demands. It turns out, however, they will take AP with or without extra credit.

Never mind. Our students can relax. College competition rules. Nobody is going to stop weighting grades unless every other district in the country does. Russia and the United States still have many nuclear warheads and missiles two decades after the end of the Cold War. Grade-weighting is sort of like that, but more serious.

The scholar interfering with one of our most cherished grading practices is a young economist, Kristin Klopfenstein, an associate professor at Texas Christian University who is on leave to work as a senior researcher at the Texas Schools Project at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is an expert on AP and often uses the much-admired Texas school database. She surveyed 900 four-year high schools on their AP grade weighting practices. Most gave extra points for taking the college level courses, although there was no consistent system. (In the Washington area, nearly every school system gives an extra grade point to a student who receives an A, B or C in an AP or International Baccalaureate course.)

Klopfenstein said, like any good economist, that she thought students would respond to the incentive, but that was not so. When she compared schools that weighted AP with those that didn't, there was no significant difference in AP course taking. "Other rewards to AP-taking, including earning college credit and advantages in the college admissions process, are strong enough to induce student participation without the additional incentive of grade-weighting," she concluded.

Washington area school officials said they have no data justifying their weighting rules but think they bring peace of mind. "We do this to reward students for taking our most challenging courses, as well as to provide a safety net for students who want to but might otherwise shy away from taking rigorous courses," said Steven M. Johnson, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Carroll County schools.

Sandra Mitchell, associate superintendent for instruction for the Fauquier County schools, said she suspected the weights might not be so important after her school system stopped weighting honors courses despite worries that enrollment would plummet. Instead, she said, "honors enrollment has grown."

I love entitlements too, even the nonsense ones. I understand why many students hope Klopfenstein will move on to another project. I would probably own a house even if I didn't get that tax break on mortgage interest, but I don't want anybody doing any experiments to test that theory either.

For more Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.


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