kitchen table math, the sequel: GPA and the Numbers Game

Friday, September 20, 2013

GPA and the Numbers Game

I went to a meeting at our school the other night where they said that they were changing from an unweighted GPA to a weighted GPA. Although our school calculates a class rank based on weighting courses, it's not in a typical GPA format. Actually, it's more accurate because it doesn't use buckets. However, many colleges look at whatever GPA is shown on the transcript and an unweighted GPA based on 4.0 rarely looks good against a weighted GPA based on a maximum of 5. An admissions person from our state university gave an example of how the head of admissions once said that he was "not comfortable" with someone's GPA even though he should have known it was unweighted. I was surprised to learn that many colleges value GPA, but don't bother (probably a money issue) to calculate their own even though they know there is no national standard even for weighting. It's also interesting that some people can make bad holistic decisions.

They said that across the nation, many colleges are ignoring class rank even if it is adjusted for class size. If the class rank is the only thing that reflects the difficulty of the courses taken, it will be ignored and the college may just look at the unweighted GPA. So much for holistic consideration. The admissions person said that one might get rejected in the first cut and never get to any sort of holistic evaluation. And even in the holistic process, your numbers can help or hurt. So the goal is to maximize your numbers to get into the highest holistic academic/EC bucket you can.

One formula is the Academic Index used by Ivy League colleges. Apparently, it dropped its rank portion (dependent on class size) and added in one based on GPA, although it requires recalculating the GPA into a standard form.

Academic Index

There is also this, which gives a spreadsheet calculator.

AI Calculator

Although AI was developed for athletes, they calculate it for all students.

The first part is based on your SAT scores, the second part is based on your SAT II scores, and the third part is based on your GPA. The link above talks about a GPA table supplied to the eight universities, but it doesn't explain how the GPA is calculated. It appears to use a weighted scale where the top score is 4.3. I haven't found out how this number is calculated. The spreadsheet then proceeds to choose the higher score associated with each of the two GPA numbers. It's always struck me that the SAT scores make up two-thirds of this index. Colleges might include a fudge factor if they know something about a high school, but no option for that shows up in the example spreadsheet.

The problem with rank is that you can't correct for it based on whether it uses weighted or unweighted GPA. Recalculating the GPA is good because it isolates the variable of grades. Some colleges are calculating unweighted GPAs using just the core academic courses. Then they can provide a factor for how much you challenged yourself given what your high school has to offer. Then they can correct again if they know something about the difficulty of your high school. At our meeting, they repeated the nugget that "it's best to get A's in AP classes." My nuanced view is that it's best to have the highest unweighted GPA while still looking like you are challenging yourself. Colleges want 'A' students. It's better to have them think you could have challenged yourself more rather than to do so, but slip.


SATVerbalTutor. said...

If we're talking about the top colleges, they want "A" students taking the hardest classes. I went to a high school that neither ranked nor weighted, and pretty much every straight-A student taking the hardest classes (maybe 10 or so kids) was accepted to a "top" Ivy + Brown (which tended to be the top choice, even if they got into Harvard and Yale). From what I saw, though, the savviest kids took the hardest classes with the easiest teachers. Some hard teachers couldn't be avoided, but if there was a choice between the English teacher who gave out A's like candy and the one who gave one or two per semester, guess which one they'd go with? (Or "easy" AP Gov vs. "hard" AP Euro).

The kids who were slightly less competitive academically but had some sort of hook could usually get away with the honors rather than the AP version of a class or two.

That said, my school's philosophy was very holistic: colleges know us, they know what a hard schedule looks like, and you're not going to fool them.

kcab said...

I was at a frustrating meeting for parents of juniors last night. The guidance folks seem to be on a different planet entirely, as one of them said to us all, "C is for college, you get a C, you're going to college; D is for diploma." I'm sure that's true about the D, but a C is not going to get my kid anywhere she actually wants to go.

There were other exasperating aspects to the whole thing, but I suppose I should be glad that they cared enough to give us a schedule for what the kids should get done this year.

SteveH said...

"+ Brown (which tended to be the top choice, even if they got into Harvard and Yale"

Why? I know that Brown is the highest student-ranked college, but do you have any explanation for this? We don't get too excited about Providence, but then again, familiarity breeds, well, disinterest. Brown seems to be nice to local students. A number of our graduates go there.

My son has had little choice over teachers. He got one English teacher who has never given out a 4.0 in his class. There is also the issue that kids with older siblings who had those teachers have an advantage.

SteveH said...

The GPA change was interesting because they realized that not having a weighted GPA was hurting kids' chances for getting into the holistic mix at many schools. Also, admissions people were telling them stories about how some were focused more on numbers than holistic judgment - assuming that you even got past the cutoff.

I'm still trying to find out how they calculate their weighted GPA based on a maximum score of 4.3.

SteveH said...

I found this (slightly old) report that gives all sorts of details on the decision techniques used at many colleges.

For fuzzy factors, the report refers to this:

"it is apparent that many institutions have been influenced 19 by Willingham and Breland’s, Personal Qualities and College Admissions (1982) and Willingham’s Success in College (1985)."

It's interesting to see examples of how colleges put numbers to these qualities. One should keep them in mind while writing essays or asking for recommendations. However, I think it's quite risky to make suggestions to recommenders.

I think an important skill of filling out the application is to get all of the important things in there in a concise fashion without being redundant. My son has to figure out a proper way to include examples of his poetry and photography. When they say that a thick file indicates a thick student, I think that only refers to trivial or redundant topics. My mantra now is that if it isn't in the folder, it doesn't exist. I also think my son needs to explain more things about awards that might not be obvious to some readers.

Anonymous said...

My daughter's independent school does not weight grades. GPA is calculated with 4.33 for an A+, 4.00 for an A, 3.67 for an A-, etc. It is possible to have a greater than 4.0 GPA without weighting. Last year's valedictorian did just that.

SteveH said...

The AI calculator does not say how they determine what they call a "weighted GPA" based on a max score of 4.3. All I can find are systems that give a 4.3 or 4.33 to an A+. Maybe they use an A+ correction for the AI, but then they should not call it "weighted".

Our unweighted GPA gives a 4.0 from a grade of 94 through 100. A lot depends on where you put your buckets. One of my son's past English teachers proudly proclaimed to the class that he grades 10 points lower than the other English teachers. (This is against published school rules, but they won't do anything about it.) However, that translates into not giving any student a grade of 94 or above. My son got a 93 in the class. He feels that it is his responsibility to make sure that nobody graduates with a 4.0.

Our new weighted GPA is based on a max GPA of 5 and gives extra weight to honors and AP classes. You can only get a final GPA of 5 if you get a 97-100 in all classes and all of them are AP classes. This doesn't matter if the college recalculates their own GPA, but the message I received at the meeting was that many colleges don't do that and that some admissions officers really don't pay attention to the details. Holistic becomes fuzzy. I think this would be the case for unweighted GPA with an A+ = 4 versus one with an A+ = 4.33.

I'm still trying to find out how they come up with a 4.3 max "weight". It could be that it is just an A+ boost, but I don't know. However, the spreadsheet will use whichever GPA gives the higher of the two scores. In my son's case (as best I can figure out), his unweighted GPA gives him a better score even though the number is lower.

This was a big bone of contention at the meeting. One parent wanted to be able to choose which GPA ended up on the transcript that gets sent out. Apparently, some kids have higher unweighted GPA's than their weighted ones and he wanted to make sure the college used the better one or that they did not average the two.

Anonymous said...

I'm being slow-witted, but how can an un-weighted GPA be higher?

Where I teach, an honors or AP A, B or C counts as one point higher. (c=3.0, b=4.0, a=5.0) We have no plusses or minuses. But you can't take honors in everything. So the game is to take as many of those honors electives as you can. And honors science electives are best: the lab period means they count as an extra credit-hour compared to a 5-period class.

Is this something completely different than what your school is talking about?

Then, we also have schools in the county that are magnet schools. They are competitive to get into and they claim that "all of our classes are at the honors level". They report grades on a 100 point scale. And they don't rank. Not sure how any of that will translate. (My kids both go to these schools.)

Separate question: how is it that spam gets to these comments? I can BARELY decipher the robot codes...

palisadesk said...

how is it that spam gets to these comments?

I suspect they are posted by actual humans, not bots. But I agree, the CAPTCHAS are very difficult to decipher and it often takes several tries. Catherine has been too busy to delete them, I'll bet

SteveH said...

"..but how can an un-weighted GPA be higher?"

Because it's really an unweighted GPA based on 4.3, not 4.0. It's kind of like a slight of hand. One might see someone with a 3.75 GPA and not notice that it has been bumped up by a couple of A+s worth 4.3. This is the message they gave at our meeting. However, our school now calculates an unweighted GPA based on 4.0 AND a weighted GPA based on a max of 5 for an 'A+' in an AP class, and the bucket for an 'A+' is [97-100].

Our high school gives out numerical grades to 100 and they still use a separate weighted formula for class rank based on that number and not a letter grade. This is more accurate than grouping students into letter buckets. They felt the need to go to the 5-based weighting because no college would take the time to understand or translate our weighting formula. For example, my son's weighted rank score is 327.

Still, some want to take as many AP classes as possible to bump up their weighted GPA. My view now is that this is unnecessary. You just have to have a strong-looking schedule and the best grades possible. Adding in one extra AP class that causes you to go crazy will not help.

Anonymous said...

SteveH asked
""+ Brown (which tended to be the top choice, even if they got into Harvard and Yale"

Why? I know that Brown is the highest student-ranked college, but do you have any explanation for this? We don't get too excited about Providence, but then again, familiarity breeds, well, disinterest. Brown seems to be nice to local students. A number of our graduates go there."

Brown is popular because they do not have a general-education requirement. Students have to fulfill their major requirements and work with advisers to come up with other appropriate courses to take. The lack of a rigid one-size-fits-all curriculum is very appealing to students with narrow interests, and also to students with wide interests who don't want to share a classroom with students who are just there to check off a box on the gen ed requirements

SteveH said...

"do not have a general-education requirement"

I know about this, but is this the main reason? I suspect that Brown might draw in students who are less stressed about being perfect. However, I think my son would appreciate it more if he could compare sample course schedules.