The answer to that question these days is often, “Not much.”
What’s in a grade? (You’ll have to scroll down.) has some interesting thoughts on grade inflation and the problems with it.
They also have quite a bit on Texas in that article.
Turning all sorts of “Fs” (actually, they’re “Es” in Pittsburgh, presumably because they’re loath to further dishearten students with reality) into a standard 50 is unabashed grade inflation under the dubious guise of giving struggling students another chance. The resulting skewed metric will unduly reward them for subpar work. Dallas tried this F-is-always-a-50 scheme last year and teachers ultimately begged to have it reversed.
Also in Texas, meanwhile, the Higher Education Coordinating Board (which, although it is mainly concerned with Texan tertiary education, controls the secondary GPA question too, as related to Texas college admissions policies) is proposing to exclude from GPA calculations all subjects save English, math, science, social studies and foreign languages. What’s more, only courses that count for college credit (International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and dual enrollment) will be awarded extra points in GPA calculations (currently, honors classes are given an extra half point, too). The purpose of these negotiations is to standardize college admission standards across the state. Not surprisingly, the proposal, which will go up for a vote on October 23, has generated quite an uproar. Parents and teachers alike are concerned that students will opt out of electives and rarely show up or participate in required music, physical education, and art classes.
It’s not difficult to see that Texas may be going too far. Limiting which courses qualify for heavier GPA weighting is one thing but not counting music, art and PE at all is another. Teenagers will be teenagers; tell them a class doesn’t count and lower enrollment, attendance, and effort will surely follow. We’ve already sidelined these subjects with standardized testing and NCLB, and budget crunches have led some districts to cut them. Enough. Let’s not diminish them further with perverse incentives. Non-academic pursuits have been shown to lower drop-out rates, especially amongst at-risk teens. And extracurricular activities, often inspired by exposure in these non-academic classes, may be the secret to the (moderate) success of our public education system.