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When a 4.0 isn’t good enough

Gary Moskowitz

Eric Goss was perfectly happy to graduate from Hoover High School

last month with a 4.33 grade-point average, but he’s glad he didn’t

turn into a walking zombie in the process.

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Goss, ranked No. 20 in Hoover’s Class of 2003, got one B and one C

in his freshman year, but went on to take primarily advanced

placement courses for the rest of his high school career. He will

attend UCLA in the fall.

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“I felt swamped at times,” said Goss, 18. “I didn’t feel that I

had time to do much else, short of being a mindless zombie floating

around from class to class. As long as you challenge yourself in some

way, that’s great, but if you want that great position at Harvard,

you might have to be a crazy, valedictorian kind of person.”

Advanced placement classes carry more weight on a 4.0 grading

scale. They provide high school students who pass the course tests

with college credit and typically position students like Goss to get

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accepted into better colleges and universities.

Weighted grades allow students to obtain GPAs well above 4.0,

which means seniors are graduating with 4.7 GPAs or higher. Local

students, parents and educators say the rise of weighted grades has

changed education, and changed it for the better.

AP courses are taught at a faster pace than regular high school

courses and are considered by faculty to be rigorous because they

hold students who take the courses to college-level standards.

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High schools in Burbank, Glendale and La Canada Flintridge make AP

classes available to all students who meet certain prerequisites and

have proved they can handle the course load. Districts have continued

to offer more AP and honors classes to students in the past 20 years,

in major subjects like English, math, science and social sciences.

Advanced classes in the arts are now being offered at some local

schools.

“AP classes made [school] more interesting for me,” Goss said. “I

hated school my first two years, but then I tried to take classes I

was interested in, like chemistry, and I’m glad I did it.”

THE VALEDICTORIAN SELECTION

The process by which local valedictorians are selected varies by

school, but weighted GPAs play a key role in who is selected.

Burbank and Glendale high schools select their top students based

on who has the highest GPA. Point values are assigned to AP and

honors classes depending on difficulty, so an “A” grade in an AP

course would be worth more than an “A” grade in a regular course.

In some cases, difficulty of classes, behavior and attendance are

also factored in, and in the case of an exact tie, a school may honor

both students as co-valedictorians.

Valedictorians and salutatorians -- the student with the

second-highest GPA -- are allowed to speak at graduation.

La Canada High School stopped naming valedictorians about six or

seven years ago, because the school wanted to avoid unnecessary

competition, said Cindy Keech, the school’s assistant principal for

curriculum and instruction.

“We decided it was a bad thing, because it was so competitive,”

Keech said. “We would have students in [our office] every minute,

wanting to know who was No. 1. It’s not a positive thing for

students. They all do so well here, and we try to take the

competitive edge away from it. A large portion of our kids take AP

classes. We sometimes joke and call ourselves AP High School.”

Christine Shin, a class of 2003 co-valedictorian at Hoover High,

said earning a 4.7 GPA and becoming a valedictorian was all about

prioritizing. She said she was unfazed by competition among her

peers.

“I kind of liked the competition with other students, but taking a

harder class and knowing I was doing well makes me feel even better,”

said Shin, 18. “I didn’t really think too much about the college

credits I was earning. I cared more about the whole ranking thing.

That’s why a lot of people do it.

“But in the end, I didn’t do it to be better than other people. I

did it for myself.”

Crescenta Valley High School valedictorian Justin Kim earned a

4.725 GPA by taking 13 AP classes in high school, and will attend

Harvard University this fall. Justin got his first exposure to

college-level classes in physics and calculus while attending Walter

Reed Middle School in Los Angeles.

Justin was not focused just on academics during his high school

career. He also took four years of band, three years of newspaper and

played tennis his freshman year. Being involved in a variety of clubs

in addition to a full course load is important, Justin said.

“Being No. 1 in the class is a bad reason to take the APs,” said

Justin, 17. “Relative to all other things, being valedictorian is

fairly minuscule. I think it’s kind of overrated. It was a much

bigger deal for me to get into Harvard. I think the valedictorian

race doesn’t really tell you much about how well you did. The title

of valedictorian is like a side effect of the process you went

through to make the most out of high school.”

Burbank High School officials announced recently that they will

revamp the school’s valedictorian selection process after Richard

Huh, a 2003 graduate who had the highest GPA, was not named

valedictorian at the school’s graduation ceremony, despite being

ranked first out of 590 seniors at the school and earning a 4.55 GPA.

District officials said they recognized problems with their process

of factoring a student’s GPA with added points for AP courses.

Alexandra Kostalas thought she had a 4.75 GPA and that her class

rank of No. 5 would get her in the pool of Burbank High’s top 10

students, but it did not. She did not make it into that list because

the school did not accept weighted grades from two college courses

she took at Cal State L.A. But her eventual class rank of 16th did

not keep her from getting accepted into UC Berkeley and earning

scholarships.

“I would have liked to have had my name on that list and seen it

in the graduation program,” said Alexandra, 17. “I should have been

on that list, and it was kind of ridiculous. I felt that I had earned

that recognition.”

Alexandra’s mother, Leslie Strunk, thinks Burbank High and other

area schools should move to a system similar to colleges that

announce students as cum laude, summa cum laude and magna cum laude,

based on GPA.

“I think that is the only fair alternative,” Strunk said. “She

worked so hard and was penalized for going above and beyond. Her life

was school. Not getting into that pool did not cause problems for her

college career, but to be arbitrarily left out is wrong. This is the

culmination of her high school career.”

Glendale Unified School District officials said they are satisfied

with their valedictorian selection process, but plan to review the

district’s grading policy this year, in hopes of making the grading

process more uniform from school to school and from teacher to

teacher.

ALL’S FAIR IN THE CLASSROOM

“I don’t think being valedictorian is all that important,” said

Sharon Cuseo, assistant principal of guidance at John Burroughs High

School in Burbank. “It’s more important that students take the

classes they enjoy and want to take. From the beginning of ninth

grade, they have to make choices about what is important to them. I

think that is life, and that lesson is important for them to learn.”

Carol Hounsell, president of the Glendale High School

Parent-Teacher Assn., primarily wants her 16-year-old daughter,

Carrie, to walk away from high school with a well-rounded education

that has prepared her for success in college.

“It’s the kids who are involved in the most things, who are busy

all the time, that are the leaders, and better off for it,” Hounsell

said. “The kid who is lettering in three sports or is the editor of

the school newspaper, those are the kids that are better prepared and

the ones colleges really look at. And they are at the point where

they have to set priorities and decide what they want to do or not

do.

“But I do think more parents need to be aware of the decisions

their children are faced with. I don’t know that many parents are

familiar with the [public high school education] system at all.”

A handful of the students in the Class of 2004 at Glendale High

are taking regular government and economics courses this summer to

make room in their fall schedule for AP classes. Students like Charli

Lighty said they take AP courses because they enjoy the challenge and

opportunity to earn college credit, not because they want to be at

the top of their class.

“I took a regular world history class my sophomore year, and I was

so bored,” said Charli, 17. “I knew that stuff already. I prefer

having the challenge of learning more and asking why things in

history happened, not just learning dates. I have gotten Cs and Bs

[in AP classes], so it’s not like I’m doing this to be valedictorian.

This is about life experiences.”

Maithe Harispe, an assistant principal at Glendale High, said not

enough parents encourage their children to pursue more challenging

classes.

“It’s a team effort for us to groom students over the four years,

but it starts at home,” Harispe said. “Parents are a major player

because they set the standards at home. School just provides the

opportunities. It’s not usually a question of whether or not they are

able, but which [classes] they are interested in.”

WHAT COLLEGES WANT

College and university admissions vary from school to school, but

a student’s GPA is always a major deciding factor. The University of

California schools give extra points to students for up to four units

of weighted classes taken in their last three years of high school if

the courses meet UC requirements, spokeswoman Hanan Eisenman said.

Admissions test results, regular coursework and extracurricular

activities are all factored in, but each student’s full achievement

record is assessed for GPA and the depth of courses. Performance in

UC-approved higher level courses plays a key role in student

admission, Eisenman said.

“The breadth and rigor of their [high school] classes are a strong

signal for success,” Eisenman said. “But we also factor in the

curriculum that is available at each high school, because each school

site is different.”

Universities such as Harvard and Stanford have no exact admissions

formula, but do have “rigid” grade requirements and seek out students

who achieve at a high level, according to admissions officials at

both schools. High school students admitted to both schools typically

are in the top 10% to 20% of their class, and rank is determined by

GPA.

Jimmy Goffredo graduated from CV High this year with a 4.45 GPA.

He knew he did not have a shot at being valedictorian, because his

participation in basketball and baseball kept him from taking more

than three AP classes his senior year.

But it did not prevent him from getting into Harvard, where he

will continue playing basketball.

“I think it’s also important for colleges to consider the

non-weighted GPA, for kids who play sports and do other things,” said

Goffredo, 18. “It’s important for colleges to see what else students

have done, but I do think I was treated fairly and that the system is

fair.

“I think it’s good to have more challenging classes so kids can

push themselves, but I don’t like it when classes like wood shop and

other enjoyable classes are taken out to make room for more AP

classes.”

SERVING NEEDS OF ALL STUDENTS

Local educators know many students will not seek out challenging

classes on their own, and can fall below the AP radar. Many local

schools try to meet the needs of more students by providing

specialized academies that focus on subjects like business,

industrial and culinary arts and multimedia studies.

Glendale students, beginning in seventh grade, can join the

district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, a

college-preparation program geared for students with GPAs between 2.5

and 3.0, said Kathy Angers, the program’s coordinator at Hoover High.

AVID students typically take at least one AP course, are exposed

to tutorials on time management, college entrance and critical

thinking, and take field trips to area colleges.

“We are socializing them to work hard, work smart and to think

about how they are going to get into college and succeed once they

get there,” Angers said. “We try to make them analytical, critical

thinkers. AP courses help us provide a more rigorous setting and

helps us prepare them for college.”

Greg Urich, a Class of 2004 senior at John Burroughs High School,

was tapped by Principal Emilio Urioste last year to be a student

representative at a youth summit. That experience, combined with

getting involved as an office assistant at the school, motivated Greg

to get more involved in school. Greg has about a 2.9 GPA, and hopes

to raise it to 3.4 his senior year.

“I passed up opportunities early on to take honors or advanced

classes because I didn’t want the workload,” said Greg, 17. “I wanted

to do the relaxed, social high school thing, but now I understand. I

have some cool classes coming up this year that I’m pretty excited

about.

“I think for students who know what they want, the weighted

classes work well. I just wasn’t ready at the time. My goal now is to

go to a community college and then transfer to a four-year

university.”

Jay Mathews, an education reporter and online columnist for the

Washington Post, has compiled Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools

list for three years. He compiles the list based on the participation

rate of students nationwide who took AP or International

Baccalaureate exams, which are required of students who take those

courses.

La Canada High was ranked No. 141 on the 2003 list, which was

released in May. CV High was ranked No. 444, and Hoover High was No.

638, out of at least 804 listed. No Burbank schools were included on

the list.

“The people most in need [of this type of coursework] are B and C

students,” Mathews said. “They may struggle, but if they don’t get

the chance, when they get to college, they will not have the tools

they need to be successful. And yes, B and C students are going to

college.”


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