Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

No Child Left Average?

By Perry A. Zirkel — April 28, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Corrected: The story erroneously included Massachusetts among the states that have lowered the level for passing their examinations for receiving a high school diploma. Massachusetts has not done so.

Either we get honest and honorable about grades, or we toss them out altogether.

Admitting that students with a 3.2 grade point average were not in the top half of their class at the high school—and that more than 140 students in the school had over a 4.0 average—a superintendent in our region recently advocated dropping class rank. The reason, he explained, is that class rank actually hurts students’ chances of getting into college. Eliminating it would supposedly put them on a level playing field. His reference to the playing field implied, at least in this case, that his high school was one of the best in the country.

Various high schools around the country have already dropped class rank, particularly those that have a high proportion of students going on to college and that otherwise perceive themselves as elite. Other such schools have instituted similar measures, such as having group valedictorians, deleting the grade of D, and adopting weighted grades. As a result, students with GPAs of 4.0, or a straight-A average or higher, are no longer a rare breed.

Yet, at the same time, objective data show no corresponding increase in students’ overall academic performance. Scores for both the SAT and the ACT, which are the two major college-admissions tests, have, with minor ups and downs, remained basically level during the past two decades. In addition, the standardized tests used in several states as accountability measures for student diplomas have revealed disappointing results. Massachusetts and Virginia, for example, had to lower the level for passing because of their alarming failure rates. The same can be said for the longitudinal results for many of these self-touted “best” high schools.

Grades have various purposes. To the extent that they are normative, that is, based on a comparison with other students for the purpose of the competitive selection process, dropping class rank merely compounds the so-called “Lake Wobegon effect": Everyone appears to be, like the children in humorist Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota town, “above average.” Without class rank, all we have left is the normative notion of B’s and, more strongly, A’s being relatively high grades.

Some students and parents engage in self-delusion, or the delusion of others. A 3.2 grade point average sounds pretty good, suggesting dean’s list and maybe the National Honor Society.

But are they fooling the colleges? Without class rank, the admissions people are likely to give less credence to grades and more to the much-maligned SAT. What else is likely to play a decisive role at competitive colleges and universities, which are buried in burgeoning applications that largely are filled with polished essays, superlative recommendations, and multiple extracurricular activities? “Legacies,” meaning parents and grandparents who are alumni? Hefty financial contributions? Is that a level playing field?

High schools that truly seek to help deserving students get into college—and that claim to be among the elite—have better, albeit more difficult, options open to them than the “gamesmanship” of eliminating class rank.

First, for example, they can eliminate grade inflation. If a 3.2 really were an above-average GPA, class rank would not be all that important. Moreover, the problem of establishing who should be the valedictorian and who should be in the other high academic ranks would be mitigated by not having the better students squeezed into the 4.0 ceiling, or breaking through into an infinite, or at least indefinite, level above 4.0.

Second, schools can succeed in raising students’ performance, such that a 3.2 average represents a student who does better on objective, validating academic measures than his or her predecessors did. With an honest, earned reputation of quality, such schools will provide “value added” to both GPA and class rank.

Third, schools can change the metric and the purpose of the grading, such that it is criterion-based, reflecting mastery of essential skills rather than accumulation of time-based credits.

Fourth, the self-appointed “best” schools can prove they deserve such status by producing high proportions of Advanced Placement successes, National Merit Scholars, high-achieving students in higher education, and other recognized signs of academic quality, thus providing a cumulative advantage for their college-bound graduates.

Since class rank is not the problem, eliiminating it is not the solution. As Pogo pointed out, the enemy very often is us. Either we get honest and honorable about grades, or we toss them out altogether. Play the game fairly or change it.

Ironically, competitive colleges and universities, where grade inflation often is the most rampant, are experimenting with adding class rank—in this case, along with the grades for each class—as a way to be more honest with graduate schools and employers (the B-plus was below average).

Any way you slice it, using inflated grade point averages and dropping class rank is an ultimately self-defeating pretense that is even beyond “no child left behind,” confusing the aspiration with the accomplishment that every child is at the top.

Perry Zirkel is a professor of education and law at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa.

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center Helping Students Plan How to Pay for College Is More Important Than Ever: Schools Can Help
Fewer and fewer high school graduates have applied for federal financial aid for college since the pandemic hit.
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of young person sitting on top of a financial trend line.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision<br/>
College & Workforce Readiness Louisiana Student Finds Stability Amid Tumultuous Freshman Year
Logan Balfantz arrived at the University of Notre Dame last fall considering himself one of the lucky graduates in 2020.
3 min read
Logan Balfantz
Logan Balfantz
Courtesy of Sarah Kubinski
College & Workforce Readiness Layoffs, COVID, Spotty Internet: A Fla. Student Persists in College
Bouts with COVID-19 were just the latest challenges to face class of 2020 graduate Magdalena Estiverne and her family.
2 min read
Magdalina Estiverne poses for a portrait at her home in Orlando, Fla., on October 2, 2020. Estiverne graduated from high school in the spring of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Orlando, Fla., student Magdalena Estiverne poses for a portrait in 2020, four months after her high school graduation.
Eve Edelheit for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness 2021 Grad Builds Peer Support for College Planning
College-going clubs can support first-generation students, says Daniela Andrade, whose own high school club helped her get to Harvard.
2 min read
Harvard University freshman Daniela Andrade on campus October 12, 2021 in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University freshman Daniela Andrade takes a break between classes earlier this fall at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Angela Rowlings for Education Week