South River STEM Program Hurts Ranking of Non-STEM Students
Parents and students in south county cheered when STEM came to South River High School in Edgewater four years ago. STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, a specific curriculum for about 100 students in each graduating class. There is an application process and then a lottery placement.
At South River High School, STEM is a magnet school serving students from Annapolis, Broadneck, Severna Park, South River and Southern High Schools. In North County, students a similar STEM magnet runs out of North County High School.
At South River, the program was welcomed as a way to prepare students for careers in technology and engineering. The course of study also fit with South River’s Project Lead the Way, and their successful FIRST Robotics team, the PowerHawks.
In addition, the program could help students from Anne Arundel County Public Schools compete for college with students from prestigious programs like Montgomery County’s Blair STEM magnet school in Silver Spring and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology High School in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The first full class to graduate from South River High’s STEM program is the Class of 2013. The just-graduated class of 2012 had about 50 STEM students who began the program as sophomores.
What many students—and parents—don’t know is that non-STEM students with comparable grades can’t outrank STEM students in weighted Grade Point Average (GPA).
In plain English, this means that non-STEM students are extremely unlikely to ever become valedictorian and salutatorian at South River High School. In addition, if things don’t change, non-STEM, or standard curriculum, students are very unlikely to be included in the top tier of students.
For standard students applying to college, the disparity is not something easily explained to college admissions officers because all of the students come from the same school. STEM at South River is not treated as a separate entity.
Colleges pay attention to rank if it is included in student transcripts. South River ranks students.
In Fairfax County, the school system has abandoned student ranking at all high schools, so graduates of the Thomas Jefferson STEM program are not compared to other students, according to John Torrey, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman.
In other magnet high schools, STEM students and non-STEM students are segregated in class ranking. For college admission offices, it looks like students come from two separate high schools with separate offerings.
Here is an example of how the ‘STEM bump’ looks now at South River:
|STEM||Points for an A grade||Non-STEM||Points for an A grade|
|Systems Science I & II (counts as three year class)||6.75||Biology and Chemistry (no honors after 2011)||4|
|Principles of Engineering (honors)||4.5||Tech Ed (honors not available)||4|
|Foundations of Art Level 1 (honors)||4.5||Foundations of Art (honors not available)||4|
|Grade Point Average:||5.25||Grade Point Average:||4|
According to one parent (who requested anonymity), administrators told her that by taking on a number of AP courses, a standard student could overcome the inequality. The parent calculated that such a student would need to take on an impossibly difficult course load of Advanced Placement, or “AP” classes.
Here is an example of the number of AP courses that a student would have to take to overcome the STEM bump:
- 3 AP courses in 10th grade
- 7 AP courses in 11th grade
- 8 AP courses in 12th grade
Generally speaking, the most AP classes a junior should take is five. These classes can earn a high school student college credit if s/he scores high enough on the final. But as most students can attest, these classes are difficult because they are paced faster, the tests are harder and there is typically a heavy homework load.
But even if students could take the seven classes in junior year and eight classes as a senior, it is misleading because colleges look at class ranking in applications submitted at the beginning of senior year, when the impact of eight AP courses in 12th grade wouldn’t yet count.
At a recent Board of Education meeting, student Board member Jillian Buck asked Dr. George Arlotto, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and School Performance, to look at the grading disparity as part of the new grading regulations that are being put into place.
Aside from the honors course offerings for freshmen, STEM students take physical education and health requirements as after-school programs, freeing up space in their daytime schedule for additional honors and/or AP courses. Standard curriculum students are not permitted to take these classes after school.
The easiest fix to this problem is to either eliminate rank or to rank the STEM and non-STEM students separately—treating STEM as a separate school. Whether or not the administration is willing to take this step is unclear.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that, “[o]ur offices of School Performance and Advanced Studies and Programs are meeting in the coming weeks to discuss this issue and to gather input from a variety of audiences as they determine the best way to move forward.”
If you would like to have input on this issue, contact your Anne Arundel County Public Schools Board of Education member.
Full disclosure: the author has a child—Class of 2014—at South River High School.