Worth the Weight?

Students in Jay Nelson’s 6th Period English I Honors class revise their essays. Photo by Tara Higgins

By Tara Higgins

Any student who is or has been enrolled in an honors class will tell you that it is by no means “just another class.”
“An honors class is much faster paced,” said AP Language and Composition teacher Megan Peterson, who previously taught Honors English II. Besides the increased standards, “kids are expected to do a lot more outside of class.”
Despite these differences, several school districts in Colorado award their honors students with a grading system similar to the one we use for Advanced Placement classes.
Students in AP classes earn weighted grades, which uses a 5 point system instead of the regular 4 point grade used for all other classes, meaning an “A” earns 5 points, “B” 4 points, and so on. Cherry Creek, Jefferson County, Littleton, Colorado Springs, Denver and Aurora Public Schools are among those using the 5 point system for honors classes.
Why, then, are students in Douglas County Schools missing out?
Senior and National Honors Society President Natasha Williams believes that what sets honors students apart is enough to justify a different grading system.
“Many other districts in the state weight honors grades, [including] private schools,” Williams said. “We want a fair playing field.”
But it’s not just about competing with high schools in other districts for scholarships.
“I think it’s important to credit students for their accomplishments and [encourage them] to take more challenging courses,” she said.
The process for petitioning is at the district level.
The principals of each of the high schools in the district have monthly meetings. Williams spoke to Principal Corey Wise and “he said that he’d bring up the topic in the meeting for it to be voted upon.”
According to Williams, one of the reasons honors classes do not have weighted grades in Douglas County is because the district does not have sufficient evidence of the way honors classes are being taught.
“They need proof that honors courses offer a curriculum that is more challenging than [regular] courses,” said Williams.
Assistant Principal Danny Winsor had previously worked in Cherry Creek School District, one of the several districts that offers weighted grades for its honors classes. He agrees that this is one of the main issues when it comes to the differences between districts. “I support the idea, but not right now because there isn’t that consistency,” Winsor said.
An honors class taught at Legend may differ from the exact same honors class taught at another high school. There are no set standards for any one honors class and there is currently no way to prove that students are actually studying and mastering the same material as students at other schools.
They also have no way to prove that the same honors class taught by different teachers at the same school is exactly the same. Teachers may grade their students according to their own standards.
By comparison, AP classes are taught according to the standards set by the National College Board. With this, schools can be much more confident in weighting AP students’ grades, separating the two groups of students.
Williams hopes that the possibility of these changes is enough to encourage more students to enroll in honors classes in future years.
Peterson agrees that “more kids would take honors classes” if they earned weighted grades because they might feel more like all of the extra work they’re putting into their classes is actually paying off. But she raised concern that since honors classes do require a lot more of students, students choosing to take these classes just for the grade boost may not be as successful.
“I think because of the rigor [and because] it is [at a] higher level, honors classes should have weighted grades,” Peterson said.
But what would happen as a result of the possible change in grades?
“I’d hope that it would have a positive effect,” Williams said. More kids may decide to take honors classes, with the advantage that those kids are more prepared for AP and other advanced classes.
The downside is the students whose opinions on honors classes would change solely because of the higher grade.
“Students who do not ‘belong’ in an honors class will try to take them so that it will help their GPA, but it could actually hurt them,” argues Honors Chemistry teacher Debra Compton. Those enrolling in the classes for the wrong reasons would be faced with a greater challenge than they could likely handle.
“Students think that honors [classes] will potentially give them more opportunity and help them prepare for college,” said Winsor. But a student’s GPA isn’t the only thing that colleges consider.
“In most districts a grade of “C” or lower is not weighted and most colleges have you calculate the unweighted GPA no matter what course level it is,” said Compton. “When applying to colleges, the transcript has an “H” for the honors classes so even though they are not weighted, colleges see the rigor the student is taking.”
Honors classes aren’t for everyone. Some students desired to push themselves beyond the limits of a “regular” class, and Williams believes their grades should reflect that.
“I hope that we [eventually] have more honors courses so [more] students can take advantage of [them].”

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