by Lizzy Hermosilla ‘23
Sherwood offers three upper level courses—honors, Advanced Level (AL), and AP—that MCPS awards a single point increase contributing toward a students Weighted Grade Point Average (WGPA). Students in AP, honors, or AL courses that earned an A for a semester grade would be numerically denoted a 5 instead of the normal 4 for an unweighted course. The similar weighting practices between these courses raise questions of fairness when courses with varying levels of difficulty and rigor have the same grade weight. The same grade weight for APs and honors classes also creates uncertainty about how students’ course load and grades in those classes positively or negatively affect their college applications.
At the heart of the issue is whether it is fairly representative for a student who earns an A in an honors-level class to get a higher weighted grade than a student who took the AP option and received a B. AP classes tend to be more difficult than honors. Social studies teacher Michael King teaches AP NSL and Honors U.S. History, and he states that the pacing and expectations are different between the two levels. “AP classes have to follow the College Board curriculum. That includes certain selected responses and writing expectations,” explained King. “We all have to fit a year long college course in 8 months. AP classes generally have more homework as well.”
MCPS attempts to recognize students that have challenged themselves in high school with certain awards at graduation; however, the awards do not distinguish between AP and honors students. The first award, the Principal’s Award, is given to all students who have received a final WGPA of 4.60 or higher. The second award is the Certificate of Merit, which awards students who have taken a rigorous course load. Despite all AP classes being Certificate of Merit courses, all of the required courses for graduation that have honors options are also Certificate of Merit courses.
Although there is no impact on one’s WGPA for choosing AP courses over honors courses, colleges look for students who have taken AP classes. “We like to see that students have challenged themselves with the most rigorous offerings that their high school offers,” stated Laura Simmons, Georgia Tech Director of Non-Degree Programs Admissions. In the scope of MCPS, the most rigorous offering would be AP classes.
This method of interpreting transcripts is not unique to Georgia Tech. Highly selective Princeton University states on its FAQ page: “We consider it a promising sign when students challenge themselves with advanced courses in high school.” The University of Maryland also has a similar transcript interpreting policy and described that most incoming freshmen have taken AP or IB classes.
King agrees with the sentiment that students should try to challenge themselves while in high school. “I think everyone has to make the decision that’s best for them,” said King. “I personally think it’s always best to give yourself a challenge, whatever level that is. I always tell my daughters that grades are secondary to effort. Try your best.”
Some universities on the Common Application will ask students to submit either their GPA or WGPA, allowing the student to use their discretion when deciding which to submit. Despite some universities asking for a GPA or WGPA, inconsistencies among school districts nationwide about the GPA scale may make that data rather arbitrary. Because of this, many selective universities recalculate a student’s GPA. Some universities will calculate GPA based solely on core classes while others look at improvement of GPA over time, and others use their own weighting system to create a consistent baseline for all applicants. Regardless of how the students GPA or WGPA is recalculated, colleges look first for two things on a student’s transcript: the grade received and the corresponding course.
Science teacher Stephen Wright, who teaches AP Environmental Science and Honors Biology, believes students should not primarily choose courses based on the impact on their GPA or how colleges might look at them. “If a student is only thinking of GPA, instead of their larger place in a society, they are short changing themselves,” said Wright. “A well-educated populace is the cornerstone of a democracy. By well-educated, I mean the ability to think and analyze, not just a list of accomplishments.”