Growing Number Of Schools Reject Class Rankings

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Before a judge intervened, it appeared that the Normandy High School Class of 1994 would not have a valedictorian when it graduated in Parma, Ohio, last week.

The title ultimately was bestowed jointly, however, on two students who had engaged in intense competition during the last few months of their high school careers to be ranked first in their class.

The episode over who deserved to be valedictorian left emotional scars in the middle-class Cleveland suburb. It has also forced district officials, for the fourth time in the past dozen years, to re-examine the method they use to rank students academically--or whether they should rank them at all.

"Nationwide, there is always the goal to be number one; that is a national obsession,'' said Stewart Hastings, the president of the Parma school board.

"In some ways, it is refreshing to see students compete on an academic level rather than seeing them throw their bodies at each other,'' he added. "But you still want to do what it takes to make it a healthy competition.''

During the past decade, a small but growing number of secondary schools have dropped the class-ranking system and the selection of the top academic student as valedictorian.

That number will increase, observers suggest, as schools replace traditional student-assessment tools with portfolios and other types of evaluations.

A survey of 2,175 high schools conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals last year found that 159 schools did not rank students.

Schools Drop Rankings

Three high schools in Fairfax County, Va., opted to dump class rankings as of last year, and four more high schools in the affluent Washington suburb this year decided to join them.

The seniors who will graduate from South Lakes High School next week 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 researching the issue before seeking school board approval.

"We thought it would help the students and not hurt them,'' said Principal Diana Schmelzer.

Many students at South Lakes maintain high grade-point averages--to be in the top half of the class, a student generally needs at least a 3.0 G.P.A. As a result, council members concluded, the class rankings could give the wrong impression to outsiders, especially admissions officers at elite colleges.

Ms. Schmelzer said 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 colleges consulted by the council said they would prefer to know an applicant's class rank, but could do without it if they still received the student's G.P.A., college-entrance-examination scores, and teacher recommendations.

High schools that eliminated the practice reported that the move had 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.

The schools said students were more inclined to take Advanced Placement courses they would have passed up previously for fear they might bring down their averages.

In the end, a survey found parents overwhelmingly in favor of the change, Ms. Schneider said.

Conflicting Wishes

Colleges and high schools differ sharply when it comes to the importance they place on class rank, according to the N.A.S.S.P. study. 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, noted the study.

A National Governors' Association report issued last year also touched on the conflict between the wishes of high schools and colleges.

"The few [members of the higher-education community] that enthusiastically support school reforms fear that 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,'' the N.G.A. study found.

Vestavia Hills High School, in an upper-middle-class district outside Birmingham, Ala., kept its class-ranking system but stopped choosing a valedictorian.

In the district, where 97 percent of the students go on to four-year colleges, 33 members of this year's graduating class of 281 had G.P.A.'s in excess of 4.0, due to greater weights given to Advanced Placement and honors courses.

Instead of picking a single top-ranking student, the school gives all of the students with averages above 4.0 engraved plaques.

"We felt like it was nice to recognize all of them rather than just one or two,'' said Principal Michael S. Gross.

Mr. Gross said he decided to change the system because of the level of rivalry that cropped up eight years ago.

"The competition between the top two in the class was so keen, to me, it got bent out of shape,'' he recalled. "It wasn't healthy. It put a lot of pressure on the kids; it put a lot of pressure on the families.''

'Bittersweet Recognition'

The situation that arose at Normandy High School in Ohio has struck many observers as an example of competition carried to an extreme.

The troubles apparently started when a school counselor advised a student, Steve Schindler, that he could raise his quality-point average by taking summer and evening courses, according to Mr. Hastings, the Parma school board president. By doing so, the counselor explained, Mr. Schindler would be able to pass the current top-ranking student, Alexandra Koepke.

When Ms. Koepke and her family caught wind of this, they appealed to the superintendent, who gave her the opportunity to accumulate more quality points by doing independent study.

Upon learning of Ms. Koepke's arrangement, 68 teachers signed a petition that demanded that it be rescinded, according to Dr. Keith Koepke, the student's father. The petition also identified Ms. Koepke and threatened to take the matter to the media.

The matter came before the school board, which decided not to name a valedictorian. But the Koepkes then went to state court, and a judge ordered that a valedictorian be named. The board named Ms. Koepke and Mr. Schindler co-valedictorians.

"It was a bittersweet recognition,'' said Dr. Koepke, who said his house was pelted with eggs and his family received anonymous threatening messages.

Dr. Koepke contended that the system changed policy in midstream. Moreover, he said, confidential details about his daughter's academic record were leaked.

Mr. Schindler declined to answer questions for this article.

Vol. 13, Issue 38

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