Weighted grades are number or letter grades that are assigned a numerical advantage when calculating a grade point average, or GPA. In some schools, primarily public high schools, weighted-grade systems give students a numerical advantage for grades earned in higher-level courses or more challenging learning experiences, such as honors courses, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate courses. In many cases, the terms quality points or honor points may be used in reference to the additional weight given to weighted grades. In the case of students who have completed courses considered to be more challenging than regular courses, the general purpose of a weighted grade is to give these students a numerical advantage when determining relative academic performance and related honors such as honor roll or class rank.
In some weighted-grade systems, for example, a grade in a higher-level course may have a “weight” of 1.05, while the same grade in a lower-level course has a weight of 1.0. In this system, a grade of 90 in an honors course would be recorded as a 94.5 or 95, while a 90 in a similar “college-prep” course would be recorded as a 90. An alternate system might add five “quality points” to grades earned in honors courses (90 + 5 = 95) and eight quality points to all grades earned in Advanced Placement courses (90 + 8 = 98). In another variation, an A in a higher-level course may be awarded a 5.0, for example, while an A in a lower-level course is awarded a 4.0. Lower grades in weighted courses would also receive the same one-point advantage—a grade of C, for example, would be assigned a 3.0, while a C in a regular course would be assigned a 2.0. In yet another variation, .33 may be added to all grades earned in Advance Placement courses, so that an A (4.0) would be recorded as a 4.33. While the examples above represent a few common formulations, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next.
Given that weighted-grade systems may be calculated in dramatically different ways from school to school, reporters should investigate how weighted grades are calculated, what rationale is being used to support them, and what advantages or disadvantages may result for students.
While the term weighted grades typically refers to the practices described above, it is important to note that weighting may also refer to different levels of “weight” given to particular assignments within a course. For example, a final test may be given more “weight” in determining a course grade—say, 20 percent of the final grade—than an individual homework assignment, which may reflect only a small percentage of the final grade
In addition, some colleges and universities may ask high schools to provide both weighted and unweighted GPAs on student transcripts so that admissions offices can evaluate the differential effect of weighted grades—i.e., how certain course selections and weighted grades affected the GPA calculation.
The fundamental rationale for weighting grades is that the practice provides an incentive for students to challenge themselves academically. By assigning greater value to grades earned in more challenging courses, weighted grades remove a potential disincentive posed by tougher courses—i.e., students worrying that a lower grade in a tougher course might adversely affect their GPA or class rank. In addition to providing incentives to students, advocates may argue that weighted grades deservedly reward students who take tougher courses, recognize higher levels of academic accomplishment, and provide a more fair or balanced system of grading in schools with multiple academic tracks.
Critics of the practice tend to make the following arguments:
- Weighted grades discourage students from taking certain classes that may be educationally valuable but that may present a numerical disadvantage when calculating GPA and class rank. Art and music classes are rarely weighted, for example, so students may not consider art and music courses out of fear that such courses will adversely affect their GPA and class standing.
- Weighted grades are not academically meaningful unless the grades are based on a single set of learning standards that are evaluated consistently from course to course. In other words, unless schools can verify that a grade of A in one course actually represents greater academic accomplishment than an A earned in another course, the use of weighted grades can be misleading. For example, it’s possible that a course labeled “college prep” may actually be more challenging than a course labeled “honors.”
- Weighted grades may actually act as disincentives, rather than incentives, for students. While weighted grades may make challenging courses seem less “risky” to students, it’s also possible that students, once enrolled in the course, may not work as hard because they know that a lower grade is worth as much as a higher grade in another course. In addition, students enrolled in lower-level courses know that their efforts are being assigned less value by the grading system, so even if a student works hard and earns a good grade in a college-prep course, that effort will still be assigned a lower value than grades earned by students in higher-level courses.
- Weighted grades can devalue certain courses and reinforce cultural divisions within a school. Because both teachers and students know that lower-level courses are assigned a lower value, the practice of weighting grades reinforces the prestige associated with higher-level courses and the stigma associated with lower-level courses—for both teachers and students. Consequently, teachers may not want to teach lower-level courses, and students may feel embarrassed or ashamed to take them.
- Weighted grades create opportunities for students to manipulate the grading process. In this view, weighted grades focus students on superficial outcomes—peer completion and higher numerical scores—rather than on more substantive outcomes, such as mastering new skills, exploring new ideas, learning from failure, or enjoying and appreciating the learning process, for example.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.