Numerous school administrators and experts like Hampel agree that grade point average isn’t really useful in shedding light on how much students are achieving, because grading scales can differ widely, making it difficult to compare across schools.
“A good school could have tougher standards, therefore a lower GPA,” he says. So if you want to know how far students reach academically, he recommends looking at Advanced Placement: how many AP classes are offered, how many students take them, and what scores students earned on AP exams.
How many are offered shows something about the academic ethos of a school, he says. How many students are taking them speaks to the caliber of the student body. How students score can be useful in illustrating that a very small school has a talented student body, since sometimes they can’t schedule an AP class, but a student can still take the exam.
AP and International Baccalaureate courses are attractive because they give students a jump on college credits. But Hampel recommends looking at the whole array of class offerings, and asking if there are ample classes in the prospective student’s areas of interest, and if there are more classes in a subject area than are required by the state to graduate.
“If not, there may not be an adequate range for some college-bound students,” Buttram says.
Spending time to digest the course catalog is especially important for schools that are built on a unique educational philosophy, academic focus, or religious philosophy, like St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, Wilmington Friends School, and any of the charters.
At St. Andrew’s, classes include integrated problem solving, mathematical economics, fragmentation to order, narrative identity and selfhood, Greek, Latin, Virgil, the history of social reform, religion and violence, and applied ethics. At Tall Oaks, Latin, logic, rhetoric and Bible are required for graduation, giving rise to a host of unique offerings, including systematic theology, aesthetics, argumentation and debate. Wilmington Friends offers an International Baccalaureate, Chinese language study, and its Quaker tradition informs the curriculum with classes like Global Peace and Justice, and World Religions.