By Peter Becker
Being in the "top 10" may be a desirable achievement of a high school student as well as a parents' source of pride. Yet with it can come a fierce competitiveness and a difficult hurdle when applying for college, for those in the "lower 90".
Jay Starnes, Principal at Wallenpaupack Are High School, set forth a proposal to the School Board, Monday night, to switch the way student achievement is recognized, by using the Latin system normally associated with college: Cum laude, magna cum laude and suma cum laude.
The Latin system is based on a student's percentile placement rather than use grade point average (GPA) to rank one student against the other.
Cum laude honors students with a range of 92 to 94.99 GPA. Magna cum laude honors those with a GPA of 95 to 97. Summa cum laude distinguishes those students with a GPA of 98 and above.
Class rank, he said, creates an "elite" status and also disadvantages many students when applying for college.
Instead of identifying a valedictorian and a salutatorian to give the graduation speeches, the class president and a selected class representative could give the speeches. The class representative would be picked by a committee of students, faculty and administrators.
Starnes asked for the Board to consider the change and asked for their input. He recommended phasing this in with the current 8th grade. Feedback from parents would be sought. He noted it would be unfair to implement the change with the upper classes, who are preparing for graduation based on the class ranking system.
Pros and cons
Starnes distributed printed information weighing the pros and cons. This is summarized here.
The currently used system, class rank, is an objective measure of academic performance easily evaluated by universities.
Students benefit from ranking by taking more rigorous courses in order to earn the weighted grade-point average (GPA) assigned to more demanding advanced placement (AP) and honors courses. College admission professionals consistently note that the extent of rigor in courses taken meaningfully aids the admission process.
For those students just outside the top 10 percent, class rank is a significant tool and motivates them to work harder.
On the other hand, class rank can hinder students who apply for college.
Class rank encourages cutthroat competition, cheating and choosing classes based on GPA weight rather than on interest. Stress of being in the top rank can start as early as the freshman year. Students sometimes are pitted against the other.
Students, for example, may skip over an art class because they don't carry enough weight in the GPA, Starnes said. "That's not a good reason," he said, to avoid courses they like. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joann Hudak agreed, noting there have been many students who abandoned band classes because of this. "Competition can tear kids apart," Hudak said.
A student who might otherwise, for example, want to take a fine arts class, may skip it because it doesn't offer the extra credit for AP courses. If they took only AP courses and earned straight As, they do better taking a study hall or early dismissal rather than take a non-required, non-AP course that doesn't give extra credit and would drag down the total grade.
Should be 'time of celebration'
Superintendent Michael Silsby shared how he has seen where students jostled over the status of valedictorian vs. salutatorian in the days before graduation. "This should be a moment of celebration, not disappointment for them," he added.
In his hand-out, Starnes stated, "Abolishing class rank sends the message that our school is interested in students as individuals rather than as compared to their classmates."
Academically accomplished students who are not at the very top of their class are greatly affected by ranking and are rejected from Ivy League schools, according to a 2001 study. This is despite the students' academics credentials being well above the median of students admitted from less challenging schools.
Class rank can also restrict students from being eligible for scholarships. When class rank is not available, however, an applicant is evaluated by their GPA instead. Class rank may also eliminate students from being considered by a college, but would stand a better chance without the ranking system.
Colleges must review differently
Many large universities rely on class rank to efficiently sort through a large number of applicants. Class rank and standardized test scores are seen as good predictors of success by colleges and universities.
With more schools eliminating class rank, colleges have had to adapt to evaluating student application without a singular objective measure. These applications take more time to review. They use the broad data that high schools often provide, like distribution of grade averages for an entire senior class, and essentially recreate an applicant's rank.
Without using class rank, Starnes said, Wallenpaupack can report student achievement differently, by showing percentile placement on a bar graph or by using a standard number. GPA, SAT scores and recommendations, he said, would be more scrutinized by college admissions departments, without having to rely on a student's ranking compared to his or her class.