California to Rid AP Course Extra Credit

ByFrancine Vida

Aug. 30, 2002 -- Recent high school graduate Erica Goncalves may be one of the last California students to be rewarded with extra points for completing demanding advanced placement courses.

California education officials are recommending eliminating the grade boost for these courses. The move is designed to create a level playing field for all students by giving students who take the college-level courses the same credits as a regular high school course.

"It should be impossible for any student to obtain any higher than a 4.0," said Charles Ratliff, senior consultant for California's Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education. Some California students now can get grade point averages of up to 4.5 by taking advanced placement courses, making them more attractive to universities.

Ratliff said the weighted grade system is unfair for those students whose schools do not offer enough advanced placement courses. These students cannot possibly attain higher than a 4.0 even if they ace every course, he said.

'The Scores Are Essential'

School administrators and students who have taken advanced placement courses are infuriated by the recommendation.

"I think the scores are essential because I did a lot of work, and I want to get credit for it," said Goncalves, 18, who took four advanced placement courses at Gateway Charter High School in San Francisco. She said she thought taking the courses would both prepare her for college and make her a more competitive applicant.

"I think the raising of the grade should stay because it's harder work—it's a college level class," said Amy Thorp, 18, who also took four advanced placement courses at Gateway Charter High.

Bill Murray, a principal at Amador High School in Sutter Creek, Calif., said he thought the move was "a mistake and counterproductive" to efforts to raise education standards. "These kids, like all humans, like to see a reward for high achievement. They are competitors, and competition is a wonderful motivator," Murray said.

AP Popularity Rising

The AP program, created by the non-profit College Board, offers 35 courses in 19 subject areas. Nearly 60 percent of the nation's high schools participate in the advanced placement program. About two-thirds of these schools have some form of a weighted grade system in place, giving students extra credit. For example, students who obtained a 3.0 in these courses would often be granted a 4.0 on their high school transcript.

Students also take these courses to prepare for the advanced placement exam, which makes them eligible for college credit. Some colleges also offer students advanced standing for high scores on the exams, allowing high school graduates to enter as sophomores.

This year, about 940,000 students took roughly 1.6 billion exams, compared with only about 420,000 students who took 600,000 exams 10 years ago, according to College Board officials.

Desparity Leads to Debate

Across the country, low-income students from inner cities and rural areas have complained about the lack of AP courses at their schools. It's this disparity that has led to the debate over fairness.

Some believe students taking advanced placement course deserve the higher grades for the more rigorous work. Others argue that those students who do not have access to the courses in their schools, or who are academically inferior and cannot handle the demanding workload, are being disadvantaged.

"There's just no good answer," said Gail Downs, a research associate at the Center for Research and Evaluation at University of Maine's College of Education and Human Development. "There are both advantages and disadvantages to weighted grades."

As someone who has taken advanced placement, Goncalves sees where students would opt out of taking the courses if California succeeds in abolishing the weighted grade. "If they can get an A in a regular class, they would just take that," she said.

College Board officials say eliminating the grade weighting system to fix any inequity is not the right move.

"We are in favor of incentives that provide students with the motivation to take these rigorous courses," said Trevor Packer, director of operations of the College Board's AP Program. "We'd encourage people to explore ways to give all students equal access to the courses and keep the incentives in place."

Elliminating the Incentive

If the California Legislature agrees with the education committee's recommendation, the state would become the first in the nation to eliminate the grade weighting system. California is often looked to as a trend setter but College Board officials do not see other states following California's lead.

"Regardless of the decision it will likely have limited impact outside California since grade weighting for AP's tends to be done on a school-by-school basis in other states—not on a statewide basis as in California," said Lee Jones, executive director of the College Board's AP Program.

Even though they want to end the weighted grade system, California education officials say they still want to encourage the students to take the more advanced courses.

"We're trying to push students to take the most challenging curriculum without the weighted grade," said Stephen Blake, chief consultant of the state's Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education.

College admission officials said an applicant's grade point average is only one criteria they consider. "We are always trying to determine whether the candidate has taken the most demanding courses their schools offer," said Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College. "We're interested in degree of challenge."

But some students remain convinced that without an incentive, there's little reason to take the harder courses.

"Taking out the grade system, it just becomes a regular class," said Goncalves, who starts this fall at the University of San Francisco. "I don't think it would be logical to require that much work."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events