Wake Ed

NC grading changes affect Wake County plan to drop valedictorians

Students work together during an Advanced Placement environmental science class at Green Hope High School in Cary in 2014. Statewide changes that went into effect in the 2015-16 school year with the freshmen class reduce the credit that is awarded to AP and Honors courses.
Students work together during an Advanced Placement environmental science class at Green Hope High School in Cary in 2014. Statewide changes that went into effect in the 2015-16 school year with the freshmen class reduce the credit that is awarded to AP and Honors courses. snagem@newsobserver.com

It likely won’t be as easy as critics contend for high school seniors to achieve recognition in the new Latin honors system that the Wake County school system intends to use in place of naming valedictorians and salutatorians.

Under a policy revision that received initial approval from the Wake County school board on Tuesday, seniors with a weighted grade-point average of 4.25 or higher will in the future receive the distinction of summa cum laude. Seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 would receive the distinction of magna cum laude.

Seniors with a weighted GPA of 3.75 to 3.99 would receive the designation of cum laude.

Pending board approval on June 7, the new designations would go into effect with the Class of 2019, who are currently freshmen. The Class of 2018, who are currently sophomores, would be the last one allowed to name valedictorians and salutatorians to recognize the two students with the top GPAs.

The change has brought a wave of online news coverage. including a mention on TheBlaze, the website founded by conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck. A lot of the discussion has been on how Wake school leaders have said the competition to be named valedictorian has become “unhealthy” at many schools.

Critics also say the minimum GPAs for the new designations are too low. Current Wake valedictorians often have weighted GPAs of 5.0 or higher because of all the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Honors courses they take.

But the critics aren’t taking into account changes that recently went into effect in North Carolina’s public schools that will make GPAs of 5.0 a thing of the past in three years.

The State Board of Education approved two major changes to the grading system for the 2015-16 school year. The change that got the most attention switched high school students to the 10-point grading scale so that an A is now a 90 to 100 instead of a 93 to 100 as before.

The 10-point grading scale was originally going to be phased in over time with this year’s freshmen class being the first to use it with the upper grades retaining the seven-point scale. But after an outcry, the 10-point scale was applied to all high school students.

The second big grading change reduced the value of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses from six quality points to five quality points. The State Board also reduced the weight given to Honors courses by making them worth 4.5 quality points instead of five points.

The changes with the AP, IB and Honors courses are being phased in over multiple years so it’s only covering current freshmen and future high school students. This year’s sophomores, juniors and seniors were allowed to keep the old scale that gave more credit to the advanced courses.

By the time the new Latin honors system goes into effect in Wake with the Class of 2019, the maximum GPAs will be lower for seniors.

But even with the changes to the advanced courses, more students will be recognized in each senior class than now takes place when just the valedictorian and salutatorian are honored at graduation.

One reason state education leaders gave for reducing the weight of advanced courses matches a reason Wake is giving for dropping the use of valedictorians and salutatorians. Both say that some students are so focused on taking advanced courses to boost their GPA that they skip courses that are personally more interesting but have less impact on class rank.

Several Wake valedictorians said they made the choice this school year to skip taking some regular classes and even Honors courses because they wouldn’t have helped their GPA as much as AP courses.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school officials say they have no plan to emulate Wake’s decision to drop the selection of valedictorians and salutatorians. But Wake is North Carolina’s largest school system so some smaller districts might choose Wake’s new path.

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