By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The School Committee Tuesday night voted 7-0 to approve the high school program of studies for the 2019-20 year, but did not vote on three proposals for the Class of 2023 that had proved nettlesome – eliminating valedictorian and salutatorian, unweighting GPA, and initiating a collegiate honors system.

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said the committee would revisit the changes in the fall for implementation for the Class of 2024.

The School Committee must approve the EGHS program of studies every year. This year, it was the proposal to unweight GPA that prompted extended discussion over three School Committee meetings.

A weighted GPA gives more points for honors and AP classes, enabling students to have up to a 5.0 GPA as opposed to the unweighted 4.0. The theory behind unweighting GPA is to encourage students to take classes they really want to take instead of taking classes they will look better on a transcript. Or, as EGHS Principal Michael Podraza asked at the meeting Tuesday, “How can we make this about learning rather than ranking and sorting?”

The last time the issue was discussed, on Jan. 22, parents said they weren’t sure there was even a problem needing to be fixed and some on the committee said they wanted more information.

In response, Podraza put together a presentation he gave Tuesday, with information from high schools in Massachusetts that use or are contemplating using an unweighted GPA as well as data from the 27 colleges that responded to his query about how they use GPA in admissions and for merit scholarships. Click here for his findings. He also addressed the issue of academic stress.

All eight of the Massachusetts high schools he referred to that do not weight GPA had higher SAT scores than EGHS in 2017-18. The EGHS average ELA score was 597; Math was 600. The Massachusetts schools were in general more than 20 points higher in each category. However, there’s a significant caveat with that disparity. The SAT is a graduation requirement for Rhode Island students so it is taken by everyone; in Massachusetts, it is optional – the students who take the SAT do so because they are planning to attend college.

Podraza also polled several colleges and universities that are among the top choices for EGHS students, in terms of applications and attendance, to find out how they deal with GPA. Nearly half of the 23 respondents said they did not recalculate high school GPA for admittance. And more than 50 percent said they use high school GPA, not an internal recalculated GPA, for merit scholarships.

Finally, Podraza offered information on student stress from SurveyWorks, a school culture and climate survey put out by the state Department of Education. (Find the EGSD 2018 results here.) He said the survey reported 61 percent of EG students said stress was an issue and that younger students are reporting higher rates of stress due to academics.

Several School Committee members thanked Podraza for the depth of his presentation. There was a question, however, on whether or not enough of a connection had been made between unweighting GPA and lower student stress.

Additionally, Committeewoman Anne Musella said improving the guidance department should be part of the discussion. Others agreed.

Between now and next fall, when the School Committee said it would take up the proposals again, Chairwoman Mark said Wednesday there will be more time to prepare.  

“Dr. Mercurio sees a body of work that the district needs to do in preparing for these changes, including better communicating the rationale for the proposed changes and revamping the guidance curriculum so that students get more guidance in appropriate course selection,” she said.