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Is It Easy To Pick a Valedictorian? Guess Again

The most direct route to a class ranking is to calculate grade point averages (GPAs) on a simple A=4, F=0 scale: Add the grade points, divide by the number of classes, and let the kid with the highest number give the speech.

One problem with this system is that it encourages students to take easy classes, says David Lang, a former researcher with the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, Ariz. As long as an A in "Honors Physics" counts the same as an A in "Math for the Mathematically Challenged," why take the risk than an errant A minus will knock you out of a perfect 4.0 grade point average?

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"There has been a significant amount of work out there to come up with a fairer way to accurately reflect class GPAs," says Kathy Christie, an analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "Sometimes you get down to a very horse-race finish, so part of the conversation has been whether the person who takes all honors classes should be running in the same tenths-of-a-point race with someone taking regular classes."

In response to this problem, some schools developed weighted GPAs. For example, for an advanced placement or honors course, A=5, B=4, C=3, D=2, and F=0. Thus, a student with straight A's in five regular courses would earn a 4.0 GPA, while a student with straight A's in four honors courses and one regular course racks up a 4.8.

This weighted formula takes course difficulty into account, but generates its own inequities. For example, the honors student who squeezes yet another regular course into his or her schedule and aces all of them earns only a 4.7 GPA. In effect, simple weighted averages create a disincentive for honors students to take additional regular courses, argues Mr. Lang.

He and other educators are proposing new formulas to factor community service, student government, suspension records, or even athletics into the formula. But as any high school principal can tell you, the more complex such formulas become, the more open they are to challenge from parents and others worried that the wrong student will get to give the speech.

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