How valid is the practice of weighting grades for honors and AP courses?

Test GradeWith college acceptance tougher than ever, many high schools are weighting grades for honor courses and Advanced Placement (AP) so that college-bound students can take more challenging courses without the risk of lowering their grade-point averages (GPAs). Because of general grade inflation, weighting also helps high-performing students stand out from the pack.

But, in a recent study published in the National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, two researchers ask if this common practice is valid and, if so, what is a reasonable point system for weighting?

To answer these questions, the researchers tracked the performance of 7,613 students in introductory college science courses according to the level of science courses they took in high school. “If large differences in college performance exist based on taking advanced courses, then weighted HSGPAs (high school grade point averages) make sense,” the researchers reason. “If the differences are small, unweighted HSGP will do.”

 Superior performance in college

Their study concludes that students who take AP or honors science courses in high school do perform better in college science courses so weighting grades in honors and AP courses is valid. A reasonable weighting approach, they conclude, is to add 1 point for AP courses and 0.5 points for honors courses when using a 4-point scale because students who take high school AP classes perform better than students who take honors classes. The researchers caution that their findings are applicable only to science courses and not to courses in other subjects.

They also note that there’s a limit to the apparent value of AP and honors courses. “Most students who take an AP course enroll in it only after taking a regular high school course in the subject,” the researchers write. Students who earn a lower grade in an AP or honors courses than in regular courses may not go on to better performance in college. Those who earn a whole letter grade less in an AP science course than in a regular course (for example, a B in AP compared to an A in the regular course) seem to perform no better than the students who stop at the regular high school science course, they add.

Math and English courses

“Our study can be used to advocate for more advanced level courses in high school but only for the population of students who can perform well in them,” the authors write. “We see no evidence that students who enroll and do poorly in honors or AP courses (i.e., below C) benefit when they later enroll in college.”

Students in the study were enrolled in more than 100 introductory science courses at 55 randomly selected colleges and universities. Some 40% were enrolled in college chemistry courses with the rest split between physics and biology.

Students self-reported the level of high school science courses they had taken as well as the grades they earned. All but the grade earned in the college science course was self-reported. To confirm the reliability of these self-reports, one group of students (113) took the study survey twice, 2 weeks apart. A low chance of reversal existed in this group.

The survey instrument collected data about the location and size of students’ high schools and the type of instructional practices used by their science teachers so that researchers could control for socioeconomic status and the quality of high school science courses.

Student performance in high mathematics courses and English courses also was highly predictive of performance in college science courses, the researchers found. “These findings agree with research showing that quantitative skills are essential to good performance in college science,” they note.

Grade inflation

Researchers Philip Sadler and Robert Tai caution that the results of their study do not mean that AP and honors science courses in high school better prepare students for their college science courses,  only that students who take such courses tend to do better in college science courses.

With grade inflation pushing GPAs at the high end of the scale, administrators are under pressure to give bonus points for honors and AP courses, the researchers note. In 1968, 18% of seniors had an A average compared to 47% in 2004. Giving bonus points helps colleges make judgments among competing candidates, the researchers say. When schools do not weight for these courses, they are essentially deferring to college admission offices, which use their own methods for differentiating among candidates.

The College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), which administers the AP program, holds no official position on the weighting of high school grade point averages and does not support the use of AP enrollment in college admissions decisions, the researchers write. The CEEB maintains that the value of AP courses for students can only be certified when they take the AP exam.

The results of this study can be used by principals and administrators to advocate for a weighting system in schools that do not have such as system, the researchers write.

“Weighting for Recognition: Accounting for Advanced Placement and Honors Courses When Calculating High School Grade Point Average” by Philip Sadler and Robert Tai National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin Volume 91 Number 1 March 2007  pp. 5-32.


Published in ERN April 2007 Volume 20 Number 4

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