Trends: A New Order

August 01, 1994 5 min read

The trouble started when a school counselor advised student Steve Schindler that he could raise his “quality-point’’ average (which gives more weight to harder courses) and overtake topranking student Alexandra Koepke by enrolling in summer and evening courses. When Alexandra and her family caught wind of this, they appealed to the district superintendent, who gave her the opportunity to accumulate more quality points by doing independent study.

Upon learning of Alexandra’s arrangement, 68 teachers signed a petition demanding that the deal be rescinded. The matter eventually came before the school board, which decided that the best way out of the sticky situation was simply not to name a valedictorian.

But it didn’t end there. The Koepkes went to state court, and a judge ordered the district to select a valedictorian. In the end, the board named Alexandra and Steve co-valedictorians. Still, before it was all over, the Koepkes’ house was pelted with eggs, and the family received anonymous threatening messages, according to Keith Koepke, Alexandra’s father. “It was a bittersweet recognition,’' he says.

The whole episode left emotional scars in the middle-class Cleveland suburb. It also has forced district officials, for the fourth time in the past dozen years, to re-examine the method they use to rank students academically and to reconsider whether they should rank them at all. They aren’t alone.

During the past decade, a small but growing number of secondary schools have dropped the class-ranking system and ceased to select the top academic student as valedictorian. A survey of 2,175 high schools conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals last year found that 159 schools do not rank students. That number will increase, observers suggest, as schools replace traditional student-assessment tools with portfolios and other types of evaluations.

Three high schools in Fairfax County, Va., opted to dump class rankings two years ago, and four more decided this year to join them. The seniors who recently graduated from South Lakes High School in the affluent Washington suburb will be the last to be ranked. The school’s self-governance council-- made up of parents, teachers, students, administrators, and counselors--spent 18 months re- searching the issue before seeking school board approval. “We thought it would help the students and not hurt them,’' says principal Diana Schmelzer.

Many students at South Lakes maintain high grade-point averages. (To be in the top half of the class, for example, a student generally needs a 3.0 or better.) As a result, council members concluded that the class rankings could give the wrong impression of a student’s standing, especially to admissions officers at elite colleges. Schmelzer says one parent told her that an exclusive college rejected her daughter because she ranked 10th in the class. The college indicated that it never considered admitting anyone ranked lower than fourth, the parent said.

The South Lakes council consulted with college admissions officers, who said they would prefer to know an applicant’s class rank but could do without it if they still received the student’s gradepoint average, college entrance examination scores, and teacher recommendations.

High schools that have eliminated rankings reported that the move has had no adverse impact on college scholarships, according to Donna Schneider, a council member whose son will be in the first South Lakes graduating class to go unranked. What’s more, the schools said students were more inclined to take advanced placement courses they previously would have passed up for fear they might bring down their averages.

The NASSP study found that colleges and high schools differ sharply when it comes to the importance they place on class rank. The 1,109 four-year colleges surveyed said class rank was the fourth most important criteria for admissions. But high schools thought it should only be deemed 10th in importance. Nearly one in five colleges reported that students would be handicapped if they submitted applications without their class ranks. “This attitude has not changed over the past five years, despite increasing evidence of high schools’ displeasure’’ with the system, the study noted.

A National Governors’ Association report issued last year noted that some colleges and universities are worried that their “admissions offices will be overwhelmed if large numbers of high schools abandon standardized measures of student achievement, such as grades, test scores, and class ranks, in favor of individualized assessments and examples of student work.’'

After a period of self-scrutiny several years ago, Vestavia Hills High School, located in an uppermiddle-class district outside Birmingham, Ala., decided to stop choosing valedictorians but to keep its class-ranking system. Thirty-three members of this year’s graduating class of 281 had GPAs in excess of 4.0, due to the greater weight given advanced placement and honors courses. Instead of picking a single topranking student, the school, which sends 97 percent of its graduates on to college, gives all its top students engraved plaques. “We felt like it was nice to recognize all of them rather than just one or two,’' says principal Michael Gross.

The district changed the system, Gross says, because of the level of rivalry that cropped up eight years ago. “The competition between the top two in the class was so keen that it got bent out of shape,’' the principal explains. “It wasn’t healthy. It put a lot of pressure on the kids; it put a lot of pressure on the families.’'

Stewart Hastings, president of the Parma, Ohio, school board, which had to deal with the Normandy High flap, tends to agree. “There is always the goal to be number one; that is a national obsession,’' Hastings says. “In some ways, it is refreshing to see students compete on an aca- demic level rather than seeing them throw their bodies at each other. But you still want to do what it takes to make it a healthy competition.’'--Karen Diegmueller

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Trends: A New Order