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Hiding Behind Easier Classes: Using and Abusing Course Selection to Garner a Higher GPA

Hiding behind books: Staples students mask true intelligence by taking easier classes. | Photo Dramatization by Annie Nelson '11

It is one of the most talked-about, worried-over and anxiety-filled acronyms at Staples. It strikes fear into the hearts of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors alike. It has even, perhaps, overtaken the CAPT and the SAT in acronym infamy. It goes by three simple letters: GPA.

Needless to say, the GPA has become a benchmark, for good or bad, of academic success. However, some teachers and students at Staples feel the GPA has become over-important, causing students to play a “GPA game” by forgoing AP classes for easier, but less appropriate, courses.

When asked if there is a problem at Staples of GPA-boosting through a less appropriate course load, several teachers felt like there was.

According to Lis Comm, the 6-12 English Coordinator, the problem has grown in recent years.

“This didn’t exist when I first came here,” she said.

Comm said that she knows of several cases where students bypassed AP English courses because the students explicitly told her that they were “concerned” with boosting their GPA.

Teacher of AP English Christina Richardson has also seen the problem of GPA-boosting affect the number of kids who take English AP courses.

For Richardson, many students she has recommended for AP English classes have not taken them because of GPA concerns.

As Richardson sees it, the narrowing of course selection to garner a higher GPA is an unfortunate consequence.

“I just think it’s sad,” she said. “High school is really a time to open your mind. If you want the Harvard name, if that’s your whole goal in life, that is your goal, what can I say.”

Victoria Capozzi, a guidance counselor at Staples, attributes the GPA competition to the nature of the best high schools.

“Students and parents want the best possible opportunities during the post-high school process,” Capozzi said. “However, there is a reality that at the best high schools, there is intense academic competition.”

Perhaps the greatest loss in planning one’s course load and boosting one’s GPA, as Richardson hinted, is the absence of a broad education. To Kathy Lea, a 30-year veteran English teacher at Staples and a current building substitute, GPA-boosting counters many of the values of an American education.

“Historically our definition of American education has been broad,” she said. “Those are the values that are evident in a school. The fact that some kids are making their choices narrow goes against this.”

Lea added that the problem of GPA-boosting has existed for many years, and is not merely a recent trend.

“I remember a number of years ago, come the end of the year, they would finally announce the valedictorian or salutatorian and you would hear students groan when they heard the names of the kids, as they knew they gamed the system,” she said.

Lea also thinks another inherent problem with the emphasis on the GPA is how art and music students are left out of the picture. With such importance placed on high grades, the arts are often ignored, as these classes do not factor into one’s GPA.

Still, though, the incidences of students intentionally GPA-boosting are far from ubiquitous. In fact, Richardson sees the problem mainly applying to only the top 10 percent of a class.

Some teachers, in fact, feel that the problem of GPA-boosting and planning one’s course load is far less common than the opposite extremity: taking as many AP classes as one can. For Michael Aitkenhead, AP Environmental Science teacher, overloading one’s schedule with APs has become an even more prevalent problem.

“It’s almost snowballing, with so many kids taking so many APs,” Aitkenhead said. “I think it is social pressure. Until Westport changes its priorities, I don’t think there is going to be a meaningful change.”

However, Aitkenhead also sees the problem of forgoing select APs to raise one’s GPA and the problems GPA-competition can have on a student body and school.

“The culture of this school is that the problem extends to freshmen year,” he said.

For Lea, the same social pressure that results in AP-overload also applies to gaming the system by taking select APs.

“I think some of it is community based,” she said. “You really see it in Westport and similar towns. You aren’t going to see it in Orange.”

In an attempt to solve the problem of GPA overemphasis, the Staples English department is considering adding a full-year Myth and Bible honors course to its curriculum.

According to Richardson and Comm, the hope is that the planned course would reduce the tendency to bypass English APs while simultaneously including kids from all course levels in the same room.

Along with the proposed honors course there would remain the A-level Myth and Bible course as well.

As for a final thought to keep in mind when considering taking an AP course, Capozzi offered these words of advice.

“Simply, the student should have a genuine interest in the subject.”

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