The AP Arms Race: Is Grade-Weighting to Blame?

Kristin Klopfenstein
University of Texas Dallas, Texas School Project

Does grade weighting bribe students into taking more Advanced Placement classes than they otherwise would? Kristin Klopfenstein thought it possible, hypothesizing that this “arms race” not only negates the positive effects of advanced course work by substituting quantity over quality, but works against lower-achieving, and often minority, students who don’t know how to game the grade weighting system. The rationale behind grade weighting (or assigning more GPA “weight” to harder classes like AP, International Baccalaureate, and dual-credit) is simple: If we don’t make advanced classes worth “more”—usually 10 or 25 percent more than a non-honors class—students will skate by on the easy classes to maintain their class rank, especially in states that give preferential state university admission to the top 10 or 15 percent of each high school class. So Klopfenstein surveyed 911 four-year high schools in Texas—which uses the “percentage” college admissions rule—on their grade weighting procedures in the 2003-04 school year, and compared them to the number of students taking APs, the school demographics, and the school college admission history. She finds—using an extremely complex and somewhat opaque econometric model—that grade weighting does not have a discernable effect on whether students choose to take AP courses or not, and that this is true regardless of students’ socio-economic status and/or ethnicity. Pushing students who are not ready for AP classes into them has all sorts of negative effects, so it’s good news that grade weighting is not doing so. As for the merits of grade weighting itself, that’s still up for debate. Take a look at her dense analysis here.