When John Crosby takes his final exams this week, it will be a lot like playing "Jeopardy." Every question could be the one that costs the Polytechnic Institute senior thousands of dollars.
The basketball player has 20 potential athletic scholarships, totaling more than $1 million, riding on his final exams, which he must score well on to maintain his GPA and choose from universities like Cornell and Xavier.
It's a daunting task at the rigorous Poly — made even more difficult by a citywide policy that gives less weight to grades in Advanced Placement and honors courses than any other school district in the Baltimore region.
Students say the city's policy hinders their chances of securing college acceptance and scholarships.
The Baltimore school board has ordered an inquiry into the district's policy for weighted grade point averages. The board took the step after Poly students brought the issue to its attention.
The city uses a four-point scale for letter grades A through D and a multiplier system to attach "quality points" to GPAs for students who take honors and Advanced Placement courses. Honors courses count for 1.1 and Advanced Placement courses are 1.2. So a student who earns a C in a city honors course would receive 2.2 points.
In contrast, Baltimore County awards one full "quality point" for honors and two for Advanced Placement classes. So the C student in the county would be awarded three points — the equivalent of a city student's earning a B in an easier class.
Crosby, who is taking five honors classes this year, is one of several city students upset that they would have gotten more credit for the strenuous classes they are taking in a county school. For student-athletes, weighted GPAs are used by the NCAA to determine eligibility for merit and athletic scholarships.
"Poly is hard — teachers are more strict, deadlines are shorter, homework is more time-consuming — and I worked hard," Crosby said. "I'm trying to stay positive about it all, but it's frustrating because I could have gone somewhere else and it'd be a whole different situation."
School board members appeared stunned by a presentation Poly students made at a recent meeting pointing out the discrepancy. Calling it the best student presentation they'd ever seen, the board ordered central office staff to investigate whether the district's policy is adversely affecting students in the city's college-preparatory high schools, where students are required to take honors classes and encouraged to take AP.
Sam Brand, a math teacher and basketball coach, said Baltimore's policies hurt students who seek out more rigorous classes at schools like Poly.
"When it comes to academic rigor, nobody experiences it the way we do at Poly, and the kids don't get credit for it," he said. "We're pushing students to challenge themselves, but not rewarding them the same way. We can get them prepared for college, no problem. But we also have to get them in."
Brand's students studied the issue of weighted GPAs for six months, finding that Baltimore students got less GPA credit for honors and AP classes than their peers at surrounding schools.
"It's like they want us to be a premier school, but don't treat us like it," said Robert Whitehead, a senior at Poly who took part in the project. "I feel like people already look down on city kids, and this policy just makes it worse when we're trying to compete."
The district overhauled its grading policy in 2010, increasing the weight it assigned to honors, AP and International Baccalaureate courses to the current levels. The district said its weights were "designed to incentivize students for taking the most advanced courses available."
In a statement, the district said it was "in the process of conducting a careful review of current weighted GPA practices to determine if changes should be recommended in order to best serve all of our students."
Baltimore County students' weighted GPAs are used primarily for class rank but also a way that students get a considerable amount of money in scholarships, said Timothy Hayden, who heads the county's office of school counseling.
But Hayden said the county may scale back its weighted GPA policy after learning that its quality point system made student GPAs disproportionately higher than those of students from other areas. For example, the county awards two quality points for AP courses, while most other counties award one.
Hayden said the county is looking to align its scale with hose of other large Maryland counties.
"It feels like it could be an arms race in a sense," he said, "so we should probably be aligned with what other large counties are doing, so that it's not total insanity."
The county's quality point system has also been a source of controversy. In 1993, a Dulaney High School parent filed a lawsuit stemming from its weighted GPA system after his daughter was not named co-valedictorian.