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Breaking Ranks

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Teachers at Maple Grove High School in rural southwestern New York had long complained about highability students who took this low road to higher class standing. Then, a few years ago, the teachers found a way to make a hard B carry more weight than a soft A.

"Until 1982-83, the student who ranked first in his or her class had more than likely taken earth science instead of physics and home economics instead of chemistry,'' says Robert Plyler, for 20 years a social studies teacher at Maple Grove. "We're a rural community with very few professionals or people with advanced degrees. I think the students didn't see what they would get from taking a more rigorous course.''

During that school year, however, the faculty established a weighted grade index, giving some classes more weight than others. "For instance, an elective with no homework and no academic requirements, like chorus, counts for two points,'' says Plyler. "A course that requires research or reading of college-level fiction--an elective like senior Western Cultures--is a 5.'' To determine class ranking, Plyler explains, "A student with a B in Western Cultures gets a grade multiplied by a higher factor than a student who gets the same grade in chorus.''

Maple Grove teachers have also made it possible for more students to compete for a high class ranking by establishing an honors credit program. A college-bound student who isn't interested in the traditional academic fields of math and science can design a yearlong special project in his or her own "major.'' The project must be approved by a committee of teachers, and the student must report every two weeks to a teacher-adviser and attempt to meet objectives on a timely basis. If the student does so, he or she can earn points and a higher class ranking.

Some of those projects have been fairly ambitious. Says principal Ken Gaiser: "We've had acid rain studies in the local lake. We had a study of different types of architecture. One of the last ones we had was a girl who wanted to do a project about the impact of the French Revolution in economic and psychological terms, and she wanted to write it in French. We had to persuade her to scale it back a bit. But she went on to do it, in French. Of course, we had to have it translated.''

In Gaiser's view, the program has increased the number of high-achieving students taking challenging courses and boosted academic competition. "This year,'' he says, "we have three students, all with the same rank so far, competing for salutatorian.''

-Jeff Meade

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