Ninety-eight percent of Alaska high schools use GPAs to determine which students receive the $1,375 per semester scholarship offered by the UA Scholars program. Yet surprisingly, no one at the University of Alaska ever sees the average GPA of those graduating classes.
“We just get a list,” Executive Director of the UA Scholars Program, Linda English, said.
When those GPAs are examined, they show that location, rather than academic accomplishment, largely affect who is admitted into the program.
Anchorage schools demonstrate this variance.
East High’s principal Michael Graham said that over the years, students who qualified for the program have had at least 3.5 GPA. At South, the GPA has been 3.8 or above for the last seven years, according to Registrar Lynda Barclay.
The average GPA for graduating classes is not readily available to the public. Schools don’t routinely update GPA information, and unlike test scores, there is no law that they post it online. It took the Anchorage School District 35 days to compile this information.
When the average GPA of Anchorage high schools are compared to enrollment information provided by the 2009 Factbook, the numbers outline a picture that UA has not discussed in their public reports: Anchorage schools with the lowest GPA had the most students enrolled in the UA Scholars program at UAA.
The majority of UA scholars come from Bartlett, and out of all Anchorage schools, Bartlett has the second lowest high school GPA, 2.64.
South, whose 2008 class had the highest GPA in the Anchorage School District, 3.08, had the second to lowest enrollment in the UA scholars program.
“These numbers don’t surprise me. We’ve actually been talking with statewide back and forth about having a cut off, because we’ve been finding that some students, even though they’re in the top ten percent, they’re struggling,” UA Scholars advisor at UAA, Andrea Alexander, said.
The goal of the UA scholars program is to encourage Alaska’s brightest students to remain here.
“UA Scholars started in 1999, and the president really thoughtfully put the program together with the main goal of getting the best and brightest students to remain in Alaska,” said English.
It’s difficult to conclude whether the program is achieving that goal with this simple data. There is no assessment of where in the top ten a student falls; with the system receiving only a list, there’s no telling if the student is a valedictorian or was barely accepted into the program.
While there is variance with who is accepted into the program in Anchorage, there is even more variance across the state.
“A lot of these students come from rural areas. Some of them might not even have a 2.0, but they’re the top ten percent of their class, so what do you do about that?” Alexander said.
Theoretically, a student with a 4.0 can get into the same scholarship program as someone with a 2.0. Though the grades of each dramatically differ, they both receive the $11,000 scholarship that’s distributed over their four years at a UA school.
English was well aware of differences between schools.
“It’s safe to say that there are some schools that are highly competitive. [At] West Valley, here in Fairbanks, there was one year where everyone on the UA Scholar list had well over a 4.0 because of AP classes,” English said.
Another issue with the program is that schools determine whether to count grades as weighted or unweighted, meaning they chose whether or not to assign extra points to honors and AP classes.
At West Valley, AP scores are automatically weighted, but at Chugiak High School, grades are only weighted when there is a tie for the final slot.
“If there is a tie based on GPA at the cut-off slot, anonymous transcripts are used to break the tie. The principal, curriculum principal and one other staff member assign points to AP, Honors and higher-level classes. The student with the highest point total becomes first, the second highest and so on until the tied GPAs have been addressed,” Career Resource Advisor at Chugiak High School Candice Dixon wrote via email.
“I don’t like that someone who takes AP classes may not be accepted into the program. That’s encouraging students not to take those harder classes,” incoming UA Scholar Talia Sopp, said.
Using GPA to determine the top ten percent is easily defensible, so most schools use it and the standard is unlikely to change, English said.
“Because we allow schools to dictate their own criteria, they know which students represent their community best,” English said.