By Rajkamal Rao
For admission to the top schools, high school grades in non core topics – PE, Music, Theater, Sports, Vocational Education, Health, Student Aide – do not count as much as grades in what are called college preparatory courses (four years of English, Science, Math and Social Studies; and 3-4 years of a language other than English).
US grades are generally given out on a 4.0 scale. The College Board uses the above chart to convert raw scores to letter grades.
The problem with this scale is that the grades are not weighted for difficulty. Most school districts offer three levels of classes for each grade. For example, a student in the 11th grade could enroll in remedial Algebra (because she failed in 10th grade Algebra-II) or take on-level Algebra-II, or take above-level Pre-AP Algebra-II (also called Honors). Awarding the same letter grade to students in all three classes for the same percentage grade is inherently unfair. This would prompt students to take the easiest classes to get the best grades.
Colleges look for the exact opposite characteristic in a high school student. They want to see that students took on the challenge of "above-level" classes and top universities want to see that students took the toughest courses offered by their high school. To incentivize students to do this, school districts offer a grade point bonus for taking difficult courses.
|Source: HEB ISD, Bedford, TX|
In the above weighted system, a student can earn grades on a 6.0 weighted scale for doing exceptionally well in a difficult subject. Called Tier III courses, these are taught at the AP/IB level in school and culminate in a national or international exam. A 11th grader taking AP US History and scoring a 98+ consistently during the school year would earn 6.0 whereas a student taking an on-level History class and scoring a 98+ would only earn 4.0.
Tier II courses are not as rigorous as the Tier III and include Pre- AP, Pre-IB, Dual Credit, and certain approved Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses - these are awarded on a 5.0 scale. Tier I courses are traditional on-level courses and no weighted GPA options exist.
Unfortunately school districts are not uniform in the way they assign the GPA bonus. In North Texas, different school districts have different GPA scales making it difficult to compare the performance of students across school districts. As long as America has a decentralized, local K-12 system, this problem cannot be overcome.
Because getting good grades in tough high school courses is so important, high school students should plan on taking weighted credits to bump their averages up. This is what successful students do when applying to top colleges and universities. Notice that the average GPA of incoming students for 8 of the 9 elite schools is above 4.0.
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