All about grades and weighted grades

By Rajkamal Rao  

For admission to the top schools, the most important factor is a student's high school transcript. The transcript lists all the courses, their degree of difficulty (on-level, Honors, Pre-AP, Dual credit, AP, or IB), the unweighted grade, the class rank, and the number of students in the graduating class. 

Institutions are especially interested in a student's performance in the so-called college preparatory courses (four years of English, Science, Math and Social Studies; and 2-4 years of a language other than English) - because this performance is an excellent predictor of success in college. Grades in non core topics – PE, Music, Theater, Sports, Vocational Education, Health, Student Aide – do not count as much as the college preparatory courses, but still serve to provide an overall picture of the student. 

See what Jeff Brenzel, Yale's Director of Undergraduate Admissions, says on the topic of grades and the high school transcript.






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 on-level Chemistry, or take above-level Pre-AP Chemistry (also called Honors), or take college-level AP Chemistry.  Considering students in all three classes for class rank computation uniformly, using the numeric grade obtained, but not the level of difficulty, is inherently unfair.  This would prompt students to take the easiest classes to get the best rank.

Colleges want to see that students take on the challenge of "above-level" classes and top universities want to see that students take 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.

Components of a World-Class WGPA System

There are three components in the perfect WGPA system that evaluates student merit based on courses selected and their performance in each.

A. Judicious course weights. In the ideal Weighted Average system, every course in the catalog is weighted and included for its academic strength or level of difficulty. Those that are built on talent and not academically oriented - such as athletics, music, choir, theater, band, orchestra - are treated as on-level, meaning no bonus points ensue. This list may also include general education courses meant for average high school academic standards, such as on-level Algebra and Career and Technology Education classes.

For classes weighted for more difficulty, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, where students are evaluated twice at the end of the year (once by school teachers and later in a separate evaluation nationally or internationally by educators who don't know the student) and earn transferable college credit as a result, merit the gold standard and are awarded the heaviest weights. Next down would be Dual Credit courses, which are not as difficult as AP or IB courses, but still earn college credit. The actual scale is of less importance - the relative scale is what matters.

B. Granularity. A student scoring 98-100 should be rewarded higher than someone in the 93-97 range. Some school districts (Frisco ISD, Round Rock ISD) take this to the extreme where the least count is down to 1, so that someone who scores 94 gets a slightly higher grade than someone with a 93. It is an outstanding system that, at least theoretically, fosters a highly competitive environment. 

C. Inclusion for Rank in Class. Every course that the student takes - without any prejudice - should be considered for computation of class rank - the so called Rank in Class. [Granting exceptions to promote participation in the arts and athletics, such as Frisco ISD does (see below) is however, acceptable].

HEB ISD's WGPA/RIC system is one of the best systems, scoring well across all three dimensions - distinctly assigned weights, granularity, and inclusion for rank in class (where every course taken counts towards class rank computation without exceptions or bias).

Source: HEB ISD, Bedford, TX

In this system, a student can earn grades on a 6.0 weighted scale for taking 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 points 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. In the above table, these are awarded on a 5.0 scale.  Tier I courses are traditional on-level courses (including arts and sports) and no weighted GPA options exist.

Variations in the WGPA/RIC System

Unfortunately, school districts are not uniform in the way they assign the GPA bonus or compute class rank. In North Texas, different school districts have different GPA scales making it difficult to compare the performance of students across school districts. Even the designation of tiers is not uniform. Coppell ISD has four tiers (called levels), ranging from Level 1 to Level 4 (AP/IB/Other designated courses). 

At FISD and Carroll ISD, a student in athletics or band or orchestra, typically earning only on-level credit, is permitted to exclude the course from the weighted average GPA calculation in grades 11 and 12 - but this feature is not available in other school districts, forcing students in these latter schools to drop out of a fine arts course in upper high school classes to maintain a high weighted average GPA. Check out our proprietary tool to see how the opt-out strategy can affect GPAs (review all tabs). Existing clients can request a copy of this tool for free to run a simulation of their case. 
Weighted average GPA scales in North Texas. Image Courtesy: Rao Advisors

In some school districts, not all high school courses are ranked. At Coppell ISD, only a learner’s core classes (the so-called College Prep courses) generally count to RIC. Even this rule has exceptions. Math courses up to and including Algebra II count towards RIC, but Pre-Calculus, Calculus, and Statistics do not. If you took a dual-credit Career and Technical Education elective course in Robotics on the Honors scale, the grade would appear on your transcript, but would not be used to calculate class rank. Coppell students should look for this symbol § to see if a course is ranked.

In Lewisville, which has a much more expansive policy than Coppell ISD, all courses in the core subjects (English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Languages) plus all AP courses regardless of whether they are core, such as AP Music Theory, AP Art History, AP 3D Art (normally considered as electives) are ranked. But extracurricular classes like orchestra, choir, band, athletics do not count towards class rank. Debate 1 and 2 don't either, but mysteriously Debate 3 does. CTE courses like Business and Baking don't count towards class rank unless there's a STEM component in it (such as Business Calculus and Engineering Math). It is a head-scratching system of rules and exceptions.

Excluding courses from RIC computation is the school district's way of encouraging students to drive behavior that the district sees fit - such as balance schedules with easier and fun courses. But awarding class rank to some courses and not others is inherently problematic. Students are at the mercy of districts that are attempting to drive student behavior. In a free society, students should be rewarded for the choices they make and their performance, without prejudice and a Big Brother, controlling approach from the district.  

RIC Gaming

Class rank gaming routinely occurs in some school districts, again, the result of poor district policies.

At Katy ISD and Cypress Fairbanks ISD, where KAP courses (Honors) are placed in the same bucket as AP courses and the grade distribution is very coarse, on a 90-100 scale, a student earning a 90 in KAP Chemistry is academically the same as another who earns a 100 in AP Chemistry, a far more rigorous course. Many students game the system by taking easier KAP courses and still be in the Top 6% of their class, entitling them to automatic admission to the University of Texas at Austin. The same WGPA system exists at Round Rock ISD, although the grade distribution is more equitable. Rather than a single wide block of 90-100, RRISD awards GPA points based on a scale with a least count of 1, so, grade points are different for 91, 92, 93, 94, and so on.

To neutralize the impact of poor assignment of weights and coarse granularity, students are forced to take more courses in the summer to earn a better GPA. At Katy ISD, students routinely take more than 15 AP courses, some even approaching 20, many of them during the summer. The AP program was never intended for students to self-study in the summer and gang up on credits. Summers are meant for exciting opportunities - experiential learning, research, internships, jobs, volunteering - and regular fun!

Transfers to school districts

And there is the issue of transfers from other school districts. Would a student, who obtained a 96 in AP Environmental Science in the 9th grade from any school district around the country, have her score protected when she transfers to FISD for the 10th grade? Yes, provided the origin school's official AAR (the Academic Achievement Record) has recorded the course as "Advanced" AND a comparable course was offered in FISD during the same school year. Otherwise, even an AP-level course could be marked down as on-level, impacting class rank. This problem is common when students transfer to school districts from foreign countries where the titling of courses and the grading systems are not uniform.  


As long as America has a decentralized, local K-12 system, these problems cannot be overcome. From a practical point of view, no matter what the grade bonus policy is in a school district, it impacts students only in that district, and within it, the particular high school (exception: transfer students). Weighted average GPAs are largely used in the computation of the class rank, so it really doesn't matter what the grade bonus policy is. When every student is impacted in the same manner, no single student is at an advantage or disadvantage.

So, how important is class rank? In states such as Texas, a high-class rank is extremely beneficial. Read our post here about how different state colleges and universities use the class rank as a key factor in admissions. And even for states that do not use class rank for automatic admissions - and for private colleges - the class rank has consistently ranked among the top-10 selection factors. This is true although rank computation is not uniform across school districts.

All of this brings us to a basic truth about K-12 education. The class rank is only relevant to a high school graduating class - it's not even relevant across two high schools within the same school district. Two students with identical Weighted Average GPAs in Plano ISD would be ranked differently in Plano West HS and Plano Senior HS.

For college admissions and merit scholarship applications, at least as an initial screen, the non-weighted GPA therefore becomes somewhat important. This is the opposite of the weighted GPA, where the degree of difficulty of a course - the strength of curriculum - is of no numerical consequence. This would be the Tier-I table above. If you scored a 98, you would record a 4.0. When the College Board asks you on its college search page what your GPA is, you would type in the non-weighted GPA, not the weighted.

How do colleges take into account the strength of curriculum then? They do this by digging into your transcript, course by course, and verifying how many difficult courses you took. Schools report the weighted average GPAs to colleges (via Naviance or Parchment) anyway, so colleges know which courses got a grade bonus. The actual bonus value is less important, but the fact that the student took a course which earned a bonus clearly factors into college admissions decisions in a rather significant way.

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 - and thereby improve their class rank. This is what successful students do when applying to top colleges and universities.

The cumulative weighted average GPA is simply the sum of all the weighted average grades for each course in a student's high school career divided by the number of courses needed to graduate.  The table below shows a student's weighted average GPA, the non-weighted GPA and the College Board GPA (which has a more generous percent grade to 4.0 GPA conversion).


Image Credit: Rao Advisors LLC

The New York Times reported on an extreme case when a high school senior in rural Alpine, Texas, took her school district to court over disagreements about her grades. If you want to track your student's GPA throughout his/her high school career, please take advantage of our High School GPA tracking service.

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