Several School District of Rhinelander administrators told a Board of Education committee Monday that weighted courses - those thaat count more toward a student's grade point average - should be phased out beginning with the incoming class of 2023 as a way to level the playing field for all students.
The instruction and accountability committee heard from director of instruction Teri Maney and others who have been involved in seeking a way to encourage more students to take more classes in fields they may pursue as a career.
"This is kind of the next step," Maney told the committee. "If you recall, last year we discussed the grading practices and that the scale truly wasn't understood to the degree we wanted."
Upon further examination, the courses, which can net students up to an extra .33 toward their GPA if they earn an "A," wasn't in keeping with the district's stated policies, she continued.
"It divides our equity challenge, that we are trying to close gaps, and that there has to be equity in all classes," Maney explained. "We want our students to realize that all classes are important. They have different requirements, but you go into that knowing that you shouldn't be down on a class before you even start it."
She said administration and RHS staff are still fine-tuning the proposal.
When the administration first started looking at the problem, "there were several grading scales" that were being "forced fit into certain situations," Maney explained. "Or there were other courses where you have two teachers teaching the same content area but one was using one grading system while another was not."
District math specialist Rachel Hoffman, who will take over Maney's position at the end of the 2018-19 school year, said an effort has been made to get all teachers onboard with using just one grading system.
"Last year, the change that was made was that most of the multiple grading scales were used for the high school and a decision was made at the high school and middle school levels to remove the 4-point grading scale because of the inconsistencies in how it was being used and applied and go to a more straight traditional grading scale," Hoffman explained.
Over the years, the district has never established any guidelines or protocols for determining which classes would carry the extra weight, she added.
"What we're looking to do is remove the weight for fall classes, starting with the class of 2023," Hoffman said. "So that would be the incoming freshmen for next year."
Students who are already attending RHS won't see a change, Hoffman noted.
"We want this to be equitable, and it doesn't line up with the strategic plan for the district," she said. "One of our goals is to have high school success in whatever that student chooses for their pathway moving forward; whether it is a four-year college, tech school, apprenticeship or moving into the workforce. What can we do to make sure that all of our kids are ready to do whatever they want to do moving forward."
In researching board minutes, the earliest reference they could find to weighted classes was in the 1990s, although long-time members of the RHS teaching staff said the push for the classes began in the 1980s.
"We found you didn't know which courses were weighted or why because there wasn't a policy or guidelines or some sort of protocol," Hoffman said.
Currently, there are 16 weighted courses offered at RHS in English, foreign languages, math, science and social studies.
"We found that we're missing about half of our school being represented in a weighted class," Hoffman said. "So some English classes were weighted, some weren't. Some foreign language were, some weren't."
She noted that art, business, music, PE, FCS and TEAM classes were not weighted, with no explanation as to why they were omitted.
In addition, while the perception many students have is that weighted courses are the last, most challenging courses in a strand, this isn't necessarily the case, she said.
Also, there is inconsistency on why some third and fourth year courses are weighted while others are not.
"All of the AP (advanced placement) courses are currently weighted, but transcripted and dual credit courses are not," Hoffman said.
Some members of the high school leadership team came to the conclusion that some students are avoiding some weighted courses that might pertain to their future careers out of fear of hurting their class ranking, she continued.
A study of the other schools in the Great Northern Conference showed that Medford and Antigo have weighted classes while Northland Pines, Lakeland, Tomahawk and Mosinee do not.
Hoffman told the committee that a recent survey conducted by the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA) showed that while most universities, especially those in the University of Wisconsin system, have different admission criteria, most tend to use a student's unweighted GPA or disregard it altogether. Many schools no longer take class ranking into consideration when making admission decisions, she added.
"They are looking at what the students took and how far they progressed in those sequences, compared to their GPA or class rank," Hoffman said, adding that there are concerns as to how the elimination of weighted courses would affect scholarships, specifically the Academic Excellence Scholarship. Since it will take three years to phase out the weighted classes, the district has time to work out criteria based on what other districts do, she added.
"Again, this is not going to be a knee-jerk move, we're going to phase the system out, if this is indeed approved," Hoffman said, noting that some teachers have expressed concern that students will no longer take their classes if the incentive of extra weight is taken away.
"Most of the students who are taking those rigorous courses are going to continue to take those rigorous courses, even if their isn't a weight attached to it," Hoffman theorized.
Board member Mary Peterson noted that back when the committee first started studying the idea of weighted courses, the impact on students was part of the process.
"It was very intense," Peterson noted. "It was a very difficult discussion of many meetings."
Board member Judy Conlin said she would like to see the district survey a broader selection of school districts, other than just those in the GNC, to learn more about how other districts are handling the subject.
"I have some concerns and plan to share some of those concerns before we say yes, we're going to do this," Conlin said. "I guess what I'm saying is that I'd like to see a little more study of this before we are going to make a recommendation to the full board."
According to Maney, a lot of school districts are moving away from the valedictorian system in favor of the cum laude system.
RHS assistant principal Kari Strebig said the building leadership team did do some "apples to apples comparisons" to other rural, similarly sized schools statewide.
"There were a few that had AP as their only weighted class, traditionally," Strebig said. "More and more schools are moving to a laude system because their of concerns about (being) equitable. And if equity is an issue for our district, then taking away the game and the barriers for some students."
Board president Ron Counter said he believes the continued use of the weighted system does students a disservice.
"I like the fact that you are discussing leveling the playing field," he said.
Counter added that one thing the district may want to consider is that most of the online rating websites rate AP courses very highly, and Rhinelander may want to do what it can to encourage students to take those courses.
Maney reiterated that the district is trying to establish a system where every student can get as far as they want. The elimination of the weighted classes would be in keeping with that, she said.
"Everybody getting a highly rigorous, with supports if needed, experience is what is going to set the stage so that we have more kids eligible to go with AP courses or college courses or advanced courses," Maney said. "That is what this goal is for."
She said students who have parental support are going to do well in whatever courses they take, "but there are other kids who might not have gotten that counseling or advice."
"The one place where rank still matters is inside this building," Counter noted. "You go outside this building and rank matters not."
The committee eventually directed the administration to gather more data and bring it to next month's meeting.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews online.com.
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