More credit sought for weighty subjects Parents in Howard say students lose scholarship chances

August 03, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Jennifer Riordon, who will be a senior at River Hill High School in Clarksville, has a resume likely to impress any college admissions office.

Besides her good grades in upper-level classes -- including molecular biology -- she recently made the cut of 42 out of 350 applicants accepted to a weeklong engineering and science program for girls at Penn State University.

Yet, 17-year-old Jennifer and her parents worry that when college scholarships are doled out to the graduating class of 1999, other top students from across the country will have a distinct advantage over her:

Weighted class rank.

Families like the Riordons have urged the Howard County school board in recent weeks to switch to such a class ranking system in high schools, one that gives students extra "quality points" for excelling in upper-level courses.

"She's the fifth of six children," said Jennifer's mother, Elizabeth Riordon, "and we're looking for scholarship money."

In a weighted system, a student taking an advanced placement (AP) or gifted-talented (GT) English class might receive an extra half grade-point.

At a recent school board meeting, parents said a weighted system is crucial to ensuring that Howard County's high-achieving students are compared fairly to others nationwide, many of whom receive a weighted rank.

Some told stories about their older children who had been denied scholarship dollars because their unweighted class rank placed them too low. Some students even avoid taking high-level classes to preserve their grade-point average, they said.

Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties all have some type of weighted class ranking system that takes course levels into account. But in Howard County -- which also does not recognize valedictorians and salutatorians -- schools use a "decile" ranking system that divides the number of people in a graduating class by 10. Students are then grouped according to their grade-point averages, with the students having the highest averages in decile one, and so on.

Because rank and grades are unweighted, a student who received B's in advanced classes could be knocked out of the top decile by students getting A's in regular classes.

"I've got [a child] who is also taking AP classes and GT and doing well except that he's a little worried if he should get a B in a class," said Susan Seigel, whose son will be a junior in a technology magnet program at River Hill High School. "He's thinking that if he gets one B, it could knock him out of the top 10 percent of his class. That's a lot of pressure to put on a kid."

A staff report to the Howard County school board -- which recommended leaving the system unchanged -- reached this conclusion: Most colleges nationwide prefer some type of ranking system, but the colleges that Howard County graduates usually attend, including University of Maryland, College Park, Virginia Tech and University of Delaware, "show no preference for or work around the ranking issue."

Ronne Patrick, associate director of undergraduate admissions at University of Maryland, College Park, estimated that about half the counties in Maryland use weighted GPAs or class rank. She said her office conducts a thorough review of transcripts and applications in either case.

"We don't believe that they're being hurt in our process at this point," Patrick said of Howard County students.

Robert Massa, dean of enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University, agreed.

"Class rank is a snapshot of the student's academic performance relative to others in the school," said Massa, who has a daughter at Ellicott City's Mt. Hebron High School. "It is unfair in a comprehensive admissions process to look only at the snapshot and not the context."

Since transcripts come with a school profile, Massa said, admissions officers know Howard County does not weight grades, and they also know the difference between regular and upper-level courses, which are indicated on the transcript. Massa said that students should be more concerned with their performance than their percentile ranking.

Still, some believe weighted class rank could be advantageous for some students. "Personally ... I'm in favor of making a switch for purposes of college applications," Howard County school board chairman Stephen C. Bounds said. "There is little or no downside to doing it, and there are certainly some pluses for some of our students."

The school board is expected to vote on the issue in the next few weeks.

Jennifer and her parents hope the change, if it takes place, is made before she graduates.

Because the Riordons have moved several times, River Hill is Jennifer's third high school. Her last school in Arizona gave students taking upper-level classes an extra grade point to recognize the difficulty of the course. For example, a B in an honors class was worth four points instead of the usual three.

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