U-32 recalculates GPAs midway through the college application process

U-32 High School Principal Steven Dellinger-Pate sent a letter to parents about changes in how the school will calculate grades under a proficiency-based system. Photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger

Officials at U-32 High School are recalculating student GPAs after several colleges reported having trouble understanding the school’s new proficiency-based transcripts.

In a letter home to parents Thursday, Principal Steven Dellinger-Pate told families that some “out-of-state, larger universities” had requested a conversion chart to better understand student performance.

“In an effort to provide these schools with a grade point average (GPA) that is more easily understood, we created a conversion from our proficiency-based scoring system to a more traditional GPA,” he wrote.

The school’s letter comes as Vermont high schools attempt to make a full transition to proficiency-based learning ahead of a 2020 deadline set by the state. 

Proficiency-based learning is intended to be a profound change in teaching and learning. Schools can offer opportunities to retake tests, and grading is supposed to be tied to highly granular standards — not to how well others perform. The idea is to move schools away from the so-called “Carnegie unit” system, where students earn credits based on how much time they spend in a classroom.

Vermont’s pivot to proficiency-based learning was part of larger set of reforms intended to make learning more student-centered, individualized, and project-based. But the mandates came with little state support, and schools have been left mostly to their own devices to create new systems from scratch. That’s translated to highly uneven implementation across Vermont.

A statewide union survey conducted earlier this year found teachers often felt unprepared to implement the mandate. And changes to grading and transcripts have stoked the most anxiety from families, especially as college applications become due. In St. Albans, the high school principal abruptly resigned in October after the school struggled to put out accurate transcripts.

Moses Murphy, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Vermont, said that while the university hadn’t expected the state’s transition to proficiencies to be particularly problematic, the switch was “even less impactful than I thought it would be.”

“Most schools, while they have proficiency-based learning, are presenting transcripts that are highly digestible. And even schools that have a less typical system are doing a very good job,” he said.

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U32’s transcripts weren’t difficult to parse, he added. But the school did have fewer students getting top marks compared to most schools with a conventional grading system.

“At most schools that use a traditional 4.0 scale, you find that the average GPA is much higher than the average GPA at U-32,” he said. 

The school did take care to make note of its grade distribution in the materials sent to colleges, Murphy said. But he said it’s possible that an admissions official not paying close attention might have undervalued a student’s performance.

Still, Murphy stressed that GPAs are a very small part of the college application process. Admissions counselors are paying attention to student essays, extracurriculars, the strength of their course schedule, and what teachers say in their recommendations.

“It’s such a small component to the overall holistic process,” he said.

At the East Montpelier high school, an article in the student paper titled “U-32’s GPA Bailout” described surprise and indignation across the student body at the sudden announcement. Most students appeared to receive a significant bump in their GPA as a result of the recalculation, but many complained that this had come too late in the process.

“Why would they do it now?” one student reportedly told the paper. “Most of the ambitious kids already applied to most of their colleges.”  

Dellinger-Pate, U-32’s principal, could not be reached for comment Friday. But several school board members said they stood behind the school’s administrators, and the push toward proficiency-based learning more generally.

School board Vice Chair Flor Diaz Smith, a parent whose own child is a senior at U-32, said she gave the school credit for acting quickly to course-correct after getting feedback from colleges.

“Every time you’re making a change – in my mind, you’re learning,” she said. “It’s kind of like being the first born. There’s no roadmap.” 

Scott Thompson, the board’s chair, agreed.

“My reaction is we have really good people who are trying to do everything they can to make a complex system work,” he said.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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