Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

No Child Left Average?

By Perry A. Zirkel — April 28, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 4 min read
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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.

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