For high achieving students, school can be fraught with anxiety and tough choices as they aim to finish in the top of their classes.
The stakes are high: Some universities use class rankings to determine what students will be accepted.
In an effort to reduce stress and produce more well-rounded students, Keller district officials are planning some radical changes to the way they calculate grade point averages — of GPAs — and how they notify students of class rankings.
Other North Texas districts have already made similar adjustments.
At the Dec. 7 school board meeting, trustees will vote on a proposal that gives students much less information on class rankings and restricts GPA calculations for those rankings to the 17 courses required to graduate. If approved by trustees, the class ranking plan would go into effect with 2018-19 freshmen while the GPA change would start with 2019-20 freshmen.
The changes are designed to encourage students to take the classes that interest them instead of loading up on Advanced Placement courses to enhance their academic standing, said Jennifer Fleming, director of guidance and counseling.
“Some kids will take six to eight AP classes, and they are dropping out of activities because it brings their GPA down,” Fleming said.
‘We were causing some of that stress’
Officials began looking at changes to the GPA system, which currently awards 10 extra points for all AP and pre-AP classes, a few years ago when they were getting requests to add weighting to other challenging classes like engineering and dual credit.
When they tried to include more weighted classes “that kind of got out of control,” Fleming said. Then they started to question their primary goal.
“How were we helping kids’ social-emotional health? We weren’t helping them,” she said. “We were causing some of that stress.”
Meanwhile, in high school counseling offices across the 35,000-student district, counselors were seeing more students with anxiety disorders and hearing of more teens mentioning thoughts of suicide.
According to Mental Health America, a non-profit advocacy group, about 21 percent of the population suffers from severe anxiety and colleges are reporting that the number of students seeking help for anxiety recently surpassed those with depression.
Instead of adding more weight to more classes — and on students’ shoulders — officials started to study ways to lighten the load.
What resulted was a proposal with what Fleming said may be the most restrictive GPA policy in the state.
While formulating their proposal, Keller district officials looked at the grading and ranking policies of a number of Texas districts, including Coppell, Round Rock, Carroll and Northwest.
For current Keller seventh graders, by the time they get to high school, only 17 classes would figure into GPA for class ranking purposes. Those 17 classes are required for graduation: four years of English and social studies, three years of math and science and two years of foreign language.
For those classes, students could get a maximum score of 5.0 for AP, a 4.5 for pre-AP or dual credit, or a 4.0 for regular versions.
Everything else, from athletics to AP Calculus, would have zero impact on a student’s ranking GPA.
No more would a top junior or senior drop choir or swimming to take AP Art History just to boost their ranking.
“The benefit is that it’s not a risk to stay in band all four years or athletics all four years,” Fleming said. “Now you can take what you’re interested in and not be penalized for it.”
Dustin Blank, executive director of leadership for Keller’s secondary schools, said grades for other courses would still appear on transcripts and be part of a student’s GPA as computed by colleges and universities.
Those higher education institutions take out any kind of weighting in that process anyway, Blank said.
Potential problems in the system
Shishira Bhavimane, a sophomore at Keller High School, has been following the proposed changes, although they won’t impact her. Bhavimane spoke to trustees during public comments at the May board meeting to suggest changing the class weighting to reward students taking the most difficult courses.
Bhavimane was concerned that students who had accelerated their math and science instruction so they could take more demanding AP classes at an earlier age were getting penalized by being compared to classmates taking more basic pre-AP courses.
While she likes the idea that AP classes would be more heavily weighted than Pre-AP, she was not a fan of eliminating electives from class rankings.
“You could get 100s on all your core classes but 70s on your electives, and you would still get the high ranking,” Bhavimane said.
Trustee Brad Schofield presented a related potential issue when the GPA changes were discussed at the Nov. 9 board meeting.
“One of my main concerns is about revenue,” Schofield said.
If students don’t need to maintain high grades in their electives and other classes outside the 17, they may choose to skip them. When attendance drops, so does state funding.
For class ranking purposes, Northwest counts classes in the four core subjects plus economics and foreign language, also leaving out electives.
Emily Conklin, Northwest communications director, said officials have observed no problems with students skipping electives, and the grading guidelines are reviewed annually to check for any issues.
Knowing their ranking
Beginning with current eighth graders when they are freshmen next year, they would not see their high school ranking on their transcript until the end of their junior year. Students could see if they were in the top 10 percent because a GPA cut-off score would be given each semester, Fleming said.
“We aren’t too concerned with what number they are,” she said. “We want to get away from that.”
Officials also plan to tweak the ranking period for valedictorians, salutatorians and top ten to end after fall semester of the senior year instead of continuing part way through spring semester. Transcripts would be adjusted to reflect any changes the last semester, but for commencement purposes, rankings would be final in the middle of the year.
Fleming said concerned students can ask school counselors for their ranking at any time.
Carroll school district officials stopped posting student rankings except for the top 10 percent in 2011.
Gina Peddy, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Carroll schools, said, “You could be making A’s and B’s and still only be in the top 50 percent. It’s demoralizing, so we just don’t show it to them.”
Sometimes a parent will ask about the benefits to students knowing if they are close to the top ten percent, Peddy said.
“They may think their kids will try harder, but they should try harder anyway,” she said.
Bhavimane, the Keller sophomore, disagreed. She believes students should know where they rank because it could encourage them to do better.
“I don’t think it’s really fair to not let students know where they fall,” she said. “Whether they’re high or low, everyone deserves a chance to know where they are.”