When John Crosby takes his final exams this week, it will be a lot like playing "Jeopardy." Every question could be the one that costs the Polytechnic Institute senior thousands of dollars.
The basketball player has 20 potential athletic scholarships, totaling more than $1 million, riding on his final exams, which he must score well on to maintain his GPA and choose from universities like Cornell and Xavier.
It's a daunting task at the rigorous Poly — made even more difficult by a citywide policy that gives less weight to grades in Advanced Placement and honors courses than any other school district in the Baltimore region.
Students say the city's policy hinders their chances of securing college acceptance and scholarships.
The Baltimore school board has ordered an inquiry into the district's policy for weighted grade point averages. The board took the step after Poly students brought the issue to its attention.
The city uses a four-point scale for letter grades A through D and a multiplier system to attach "quality points" to GPAs for students who take honors and Advanced Placement courses. Honors courses count for 1.1 and Advanced Placement courses are 1.2. So a student who earns a C in a city honors course would receive 2.2 points.
In contrast, Baltimore County awards one full "quality point" for honors and two for Advanced Placement classes. So the C student in the county would be awarded three points — the equivalent of a city student's earning a B in an easier class.
Crosby, who is taking five honors classes this year, is one of several city students upset that they would have gotten more credit for the strenuous classes they are taking in a county school. For student-athletes, weighted GPAs are used by the NCAA to determine eligibility for merit and athletic scholarships.
"Poly is hard — teachers are more strict, deadlines are shorter, homework is more time-consuming — and I worked hard," Crosby said. "I'm trying to stay positive about it all, but it's frustrating because I could have gone somewhere else and it'd be a whole different situation."
School board members appeared stunned by a presentation Poly students made at a recent meeting pointing out the discrepancy. Calling it the best student presentation they'd ever seen, the board ordered central office staff to investigate whether the district's policy is adversely affecting students in the city's college-preparatory high schools, where students are required to take honors classes and encouraged to take AP.
Sam Brand, a math teacher and basketball coach, said Baltimore's policies hurt students who seek out more rigorous classes at schools like Poly.
"When it comes to academic rigor, nobody experiences it the way we do at Poly, and the kids don't get credit for it," he said. "We're pushing students to challenge themselves, but not rewarding them the same way. We can get them prepared for college, no problem. But we also have to get them in."
Brand's students studied the issue of weighted GPAs for six months, finding that Baltimore students got less GPA credit for honors and AP classes than their peers at surrounding schools.
"It's like they want us to be a premier school, but don't treat us like it," said Robert Whitehead, a senior at Poly who took part in the project. "I feel like people already look down on city kids, and this policy just makes it worse when we're trying to compete."
The district overhauled its grading policy in 2010, increasing the weight it assigned to honors, AP and International Baccalaureate courses to the current levels. The district said its weights were "designed to incentivize students for taking the most advanced courses available."
In a statement, the district said it was "in the process of conducting a careful review of current weighted GPA practices to determine if changes should be recommended in order to best serve all of our students."
Baltimore County students' weighted GPAs are used primarily for class rank but also a way that students get a considerable amount of money in scholarships, said Timothy Hayden, who heads the county's office of school counseling.
But Hayden said the county may scale back its weighted GPA policy after learning that its quality point system made student GPAs disproportionately higher than those of students from other areas. For example, the county awards two quality points for AP courses, while most other counties award one.
Hayden said the county is looking to align its scale with hose of other large Maryland counties.
"It feels like it could be an arms race in a sense," he said, "so we should probably be aligned with what other large counties are doing, so that it's not total insanity."
The county's quality point system has also been a source of controversy. In 1993, a Dulaney High School parent filed a lawsuit stemming from its weighted GPA system after his daughter was not named co-valedictorian.
The county reports weighted and unweighted GPAs on transcripts because colleges use them to award scholarships, Hayden said.
"That was the surrender point for me," Hayden said. "The fact of the matter is that colleges have made it more important and we couldn't have our kids losing out."
Brand's students reviewed city and county students' transcripts and district grading policies, called admissions counselors and gathered documents as part of their project in an advanced math class.
De'Aira Johnson can't help but think she might have been admitted to Delaware State University had she attended school in the county with her friends. Instead, she is going to community college next year to prepare to attend her four-year university of choice.
She said that before attending Poly, she went to four different schools, where she said she was "pushed through." When she got to Poly, she had to play catch-up.
"I never in my whole life thought I would be going to a community college," Johnson said. "I feel like I worked too hard for that. It's like we work harder, but we're getting less. It's not fair."
The students also found that they were at a disadvantage when it came to the percentage that tests and classwork accounted for in their overall course grades.
The students reviewed class syllabi for algebra honors classes at Poly and Baltimore County's Randallstown High School to illustrate the point.
They found that classwork accounted for 50 percent of students' grades at Randallstown, and only 15 percent in the Poly class. Major assignments, such as tests and projects, accounted for 30 percent of the grade at Randallstown and 70 percent at Poly.
"Everybody likes to compare us to the county, but we're not given a level playing field," said Rashaad Talbert, a Poly senior who worked on the project.
Talbert wanted to attend Virginia Wesleyan, but only was able to secure $35,000 to cover the $50,000 in costs. Instead, he will attend Delaware State University, the more affordable option.
Jasir Qiydaar will attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County next year, which he attributes to his high SAT scores. But had his GPA been calculated in the county, he believes he would have secured more in merit scholarships, he said.
"Even though I got into the school that I wanted, I still feel like I missed out on something," he said.
Brand fears that the policies also could discourage students, particularly student-athletes, from seeking enrollment at a school that's going to focus as much on their academics as it does on their athletic careers. Crosby believes if he had taken the same coursework in the county, he would have started his senior year qualifying for the NCAA.
"It's different being a qualifier going into your senior year," Crosby said. "People look at you different, coaches talk to you differently. It just made it that much harder for me, as a basketball player, as a student, as a person."
Brand hopes that the policy can be changed in time to help seniors this year.
"There are kids who, if they changed this policy, their lives would change immediately," Brand said.
For many, he said, it's too late.
Crosby's former teammate Greg Butler graduated from Poly in 2012 and says he lost out on a $46,000-a-year basketball scholarship to St. Leo University in Florida. The grades he earned in his seven honors classes during senior year weren't enough to qualify for an NCAA scholarship.
Butler's 1.51 in the city would have been a 2.125 in the county, said Brand, who was also Butler's coach.
Two years later, holding on to hope that he'll still get to Florida, Butler is working in order to pay a $2,958 college bill by the fall to resume classes at the Community College of Baltimore County.
"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "Same grades, different district, different story."
In the Baltimore region, school districts give additional points toward a student's grade-point average for taking advanced classes; the following are the points that would be added if a student received an "A." In Baltimore City, the weighted GPAs are determined differently, because the district uses a multiplier (1.2 points for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes; 1.1 point for honors).
AP/IB: 1 point
Honors: ½ point
Gifted & Talented/AP: 2 points
Honors: 1 point
AP/College-aligned courses: 1 point
Honors: ½ point
Honors: 0 points
AP/IB: 1 point
AP/GT: 1 point
Honors: ½ pointCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun