Pro/Con: Are class rankings an accurate measure of student achievement?

Nov. 29, 2011, 7:45 p.m. | 8 years, 12 months ago

Should high schools in MCPS rank students by GPA?

Sarah Wilson says yes:

At every college fair, students can be heard desperately asking the
same question to admissions officers: how much does a school emphasize
SAT scores and GPA over everything else? They ask hoping that
eventually they will find a school that will place more weight on
their ability to solve Word Jumbles or predict movie plot twists than
on Cs in math or a bad critical reading score. Students hope to hear
that they're not just a number, which has lead many high schools to
eliminate class rank, hoping to ease the stress and competition of the
school environment and help students focus on becoming well-rounded.

But removing rank is not helping anything. The stress and the
competition continues to exist and colleges continue to find ways to
judge their applicants based only on the numbers.

Schools in Montgomery County, along with about 40 percent of
nationwide high schools do not keep track of class rank, a system that
compares students based on GPA to assign students a numerical rank.
The number of schools that do not use class rank is growing, despite
the fact that the disappearance of rankings from applications is
dangerous to the college admissions process. Without rank, colleges
are forced to focus more on standardized test scores, and lack of
class rank can diminish chances of acceptance at some top colleges.

Principals and school officials that oppose class rank hope to force
colleges to look more at their students' entire application and not
just GPA and test scores. But instead of getting colleges to care
about factors like community service or eight years of Girl Scout
cookie sales, colleges instead focus more on that dreaded three letter
acronym that forces students every year to remember how to find the
volume of a cylinder: the SAT.

With the elimination of rank, the SAT becomes an even more crucial
admissions factor as GPA becomes meaningless. Deans of admissions
from elite schools including Brown, Swarthmore and Vanderbilt agreed
that class rank is necessary to interpreting what a GPA means,
according to a 2006 by "The New York Times.” A B average in a school
with a harder grading system may be better than an A average from
another school, but without class rank, these applicants cannot be

The SAT remains a universal standard, and without rank, it becomes the
most significant measure of academic ability. Instead of judging
students based on four years of hard work on projects, homework and
tests, a college can admit or reject them based on a mere four hours
of standardized testing.

Many colleges have found an alternative, however. After all the
petitioning, fighting and policy changing done by parents and the
school boards to stop colleges from using rank, admissions offices
have found a solution: to just use it anyway.

Using information about grades provided by school profiles which may
include average GPAs and test scores of their student populations,
admissions officers now are able to calculate rank for the students
whose schools do not provide it for them. This means that applicants
are still just numbers; they just won't have the advantage of knowing
what that number is.

Some principals defend that the goal of eliminating class rank is to
alleviate stress and competition. Recent documentaries, including
Race to Nowhere, which was screened at Blair last year, have revealed
the dangerous side effects of school stress, as rates of depression,
cheating and stress-related illness increase. Despite the increasing
number of schools that are not using class rank, these consequences
are not disappearing.

If principals, parents and school boards are honestly concerned about
the unhealthy competitive environment of high schools today, then they
will need to realize that bigger changes to the system will be
necessary. Whether students are numbered or not has no significant
effect on their emotional and physical state. But what will affect
students is being in an increasingly competitive and numbers-based
admissions environment and missing one of the most important numbers.

Emma Bergman says no:

Today's school system takes the 4.0 student with seven AP classes and
compares him to the 4.0 student with eight.
Who should be the valedictorian? Who is the best? The secret kept
from students, and colleges for that matter is that it doesn't really
make a difference. Not only is class rank a failed attempt to
evaluate success, it also lowers the chances for many high-achieving
students to get into top colleges.

Class rank is based on a flawed system of letter grades. Throughout
the course of a single semester, two people in the same English class
may be in entirely different situations. One might come from an upper
middle class family with a good workspace and the help and
encouragement of their parents. The other might not have such
luxuries with additional work and family burdens. This lifestyle is
an academic disadvantage that is unaccounted for in ranking students.
Even if two students come from similar backgrounds, a week of sickness
can push one student the one tenth of a point below that precious 'A'.
By instating class rank, schools are encouraging these students to
disregard their individual situations, and teaching them to crave only

An Associated Press study showed that academic success was the biggest
source of stress among 13-17 year olds. When students are under
stress, they are more irritable, less productive, more forgetful, and
more likely to be depressed. A driving factor of this stress is the
pressure to not only perform well, but to perform better than other
students. Students face enough pressure with a system of letter
grades, and class rank would only make this worse.

While it is unrealistic to eliminate grades as a method of evaluation,
it is important to recognize when enough is enough. At Blair, students
are from all over the county to attend the Magnet and CAP. These
students are placed in honors and AP classes. They may very well have
been the first or second in their class at their home school, but
gathered in one place they would effectively make a student with a 4.0
in the regular academies less likely to be in even the top five
percent of the school population.

There is no standard for how to weigh classes, how harsh to make
grades and how much to emphasize class rank across the country.
Students who want to go to Ivy League schools are expected to be in
the top ten percent of their class.

But when the average class consists of 708 students, as is true in
Blair this year, and 150 of these students are in specialized
academies such as CAP and Magnet, it is much harder to reach that ten
percent than in a smaller school like Northwood. In Northwood, the
average class size is only 350 students and the school doesn't have
special programs for academic high performers. If students don't
reach the ten percent mark, their ability to make it in to the
country's top colleges is decreased. With this much variety from
school to school, class rank becomes meaningless.

Consider this: The Chicago Tribune reported in 2011 that 78.4 percent
of public high schools report class rank to colleges, but only 11
percent of private high schools do. Principals of private schools
have realized that in schools comprised almost entirely of top
students who applied to be admitted into the school, comparing one
high academic achiever to another isn't fair. This is something that
public schools need to realize as well.

Barrett Rodgers, physics professor at Dartmouth College said that
class rank, in addition to other academic measures, is flawed. "Some
students do not test well or have abilities or talents that will
produce great success in the world but are beyond the rather crude
ability of exams and grades to measure. These tests measure
something, but I think they have big gaps. The meaning of course
grades are variable and depend on the teacher," he said.

Reducing each student in the country to a numerical value may be the
easiest way for colleges to gauge achievement, but it oversimplifies
every student. The system of class rank limits the way we see
ourselves and the way we are perceived by colleges.

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