School districts across the country have been examining practices related to class rank, weighted grades and graduation for nearly a decade. Tradition has protected the longstanding practice of ranking high school students and honoring those who secure a place in the top 10%, or the coveted title of salutatorian or valedictorian. For many years, class rank was a valuable metric considered critical to compete for scholarships or college admission. That may no longer be the case. Many of the top high schools in the nation have overhauled existing practices to better support student learning and promote rigorous coursework.
Reconsidering Class Rank
In 2010, the National Association of Secondary School Principals released a position statement on Class Rank, GPA, and Grading. According to the NASSP (2010), “A system of class rank should not carry with it an underlying assumption that academic success is a scarce commodity available only to a select few students.” The NASSP acknowledged a growing trend where up to 50% of high schools no longer reported class rank (NASSP, 2010). Dr. Thomas Guskey, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky, has long been critical of the purpose and impact of class rank. According to Guskey (2014),
Determining class rank does not help students achieve more or reach higher levels of proficiency. With the possible exception of the top-ranked student, class rank also does nothing to enhance students’ sense of self-worth, their confidence as learners, or their motivation for learning (p. 16).
As recent as 2008, a national trend began to take shape when districts reexamined the impact of class rank on college admissions. Multiple high schools that discarded rankings began to see more of their students get into competitive colleges and universities (Ramirez, 2008). A high school committee in Worcester, MA found that class rank can harm students overall, noting “it can automatically eliminate a student from consideration for admission, or admission to a special program within the college or university, such as an honors college or specialized major/program” (Thompson, 2016). In highly competitive schools “the differences in grade-point average between the No. 1 and No. 20 or 25 students can be minuscule. Yet colleges might look unfavorably on that lower-ranked student” (Boccella, 2016). Other districts began to eliminate class rank due to the detrimental impact on students. A parent leadership committee in one Minnesota district found that “there is compelling evidence that elimination of class rank could have a positive impact on encouraging our high school students to select appropriately rigorous coursework rather than selecting courses to protect class rank” (Friedbauer, 2009).
Impact on College Admissions & Scholarships
Echoing the findings from the NASSP, colleges and universities have found a growing trend where the majority of applicants did not have a class rank on their transcript (Balingit, 2015; College Board, 2017; Zimmerman, Malone & Delgado, 2011). While this might be cause for concern for parents, college admissions officers disagree. Walker (2010) reported that no direct link exists between class rank and college admissions and that “fewer than 20% of colleges believe it is important in admission decisions” (p. 4). According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (2017), the top factors in the admission decision (percent of colleges rating as considerably important) are grades in college prep courses (79%), strength of curriculum (60%), grades in all courses (60%), and SAT or ACT (56%). Simply put, “students’ grades and the academic rigor of their course loads weigh more heavily in decisions to admit than standardized test scores, high school class rank, or demonstrated interest in attending” (NACAC, 2016). Additionally, eliminating class rank has increased scholarship access for some students. According to Bock (2010), “Before eliminating rank, some Ladue students who had scored a 33 on their ACT didn’t get a $3,500 annual renewable Curators Award because they didn’t land in the top 5 percent of the class.”
The practice of weighting grades based upon the rigor of coursework has been well-established for quite some time (Sadler & Tai, 2007). The underlying philosophy of applying a weight certain courses is to reward students for taking more challenging coursework and protect their GPA in the process.While there has been general agreement to recognize the risk of taking challenging coursework through weighted grades, the process of differentiating weights is less uniform. Some researchers have made strong arguments in favor of differentiated weights based on coursework. According to Sadler and Tai (2007), “There is a large difference between AP and honors in their predicted impact on college grades, with honors courses valued at about half the level of AP courses. Thus, we find no support for these courses to be valued equally” (p. 26). The NASSP (2010) elaborated on that position and added, “Weighting of course grades should be applied only to externally moderated courses such as AP, IB, or dual-enrollment courses, in which it is possible to ensure the content and quality of course content between schools and among individual teachers.” Based on this guidance, a few school districts in Missouri have implemented differentiated scales for the weighting of honors courses. As depicted in the chart below, districts such as Grain Valley, Joplin, and Lee’s Summit currently have a four-tier weighting continuum.
In an effort to encourage rigorous coursework, reduce stress and recognize outstanding achievement, many districts have implemented the Latin honors system, requiring specific grade point averages to graduate cum laude (honors), magna cum laude (high honors) and summa cum laude (highest honors). Many districts feel that a shift to the Latin honors system puts the focus back on the quality of education rather than one or two specific titles (Balakit, 2017; Francovich, 2017; Guskey, 2014; Heeson, 2013; Lafferty, 2016; Zalaznick, 2017).
The Latin honors system has spread across Missouri with at least 51 school districts currently implementing some form of the three tiered system. The following districts have implemented the Latin honors system in Missouri: Bayless, Belton, Bolivar, Boonville, Camdenton, Cameron, California, Carrollton, Cassville, Clayton, Clever, Clinton, Fort Zumwalt, Fox, Francis Howell, Fulton, Gasconade Co., Grain Valley, Hallsville, Hannibal, Hazelwood, Hermitage, Joplin, Knob Noster, Lexington, Marshall, Marshfield, Mexico, Monett, Monroe City, Mt. Vernon, Neosho, Nixa, North St. Francois Co., Northwest, Odessa, Orchard Farm, Ozark, Parkway, Pattonville, Platte County, Rockwood, St. Charles, Union, Warrensburg, Wentzville, Webster Groves, West Plains, West Platte, Willard, and Wright City.
Now is the perfect time for high schools and districts to review policies and practices related to class rank, weighted grades and student recognitions. Policies and procedures have shifted nationally and maintaining the status quo may have a detrimental impact on graduates as they apply for college. Guskey (2014) captured the importance of this reflection, stating:
Recognizing excellence in academic performance is a vital aspect of any learning community. But such recognition should not be grounded on norm-based criteria that lead to deleterious competition, especially in a standards-based environment. Instead, it should be based on clear models of excellence developed from standards that represent our highest aspirations and goals for students (Guskey & Bailey, 2010). Educators more concerned with developing talent than with selecting talent should take pride in helping the largest number of students possible meet these rigorous criteria and high standards of excellence. Students will too. (p. 19)
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Friedbauer, C. (2009). District removes class rank. Chaska Herald. Chaska, MN.
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Heesen, B. (2013). Wilson to drop valedictorian distinction; Latin honors system will include more seniors. Reading Eagle. Reading, PA.
Lafferty, S. (2016). Class-ranking systems fading away. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, IL.
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NACAC. (2016). NACAC survey: Grades matter most in college admission.
NASSP. (2010). Class rank, GPA, and grading.
Ramírez, E. (2008). More high schools consider eliminating class rankings: Some schools report increase in students getting into colleges when they don’t report class rank. U.S. News & World Report.
Sadler, P. M., & Tai, R. H. (2007). Weighting for recognition: Accounting for advanced placement and honors courses when calculating high school grade point average. NASSP Bulletin, 91(1), 5-32.
Thompson, E. (2016). Shrewsbury high school may stop reporting class rank. Telegram.com. Worcester, MA.
Walker, K. (2010). Rank in Class and College Admission. Education Partnerships, Inc.
Zalaznick, M. (2017). Schools try to remove stress of class rankings: Choosing K12 courses based on interests and skill over GPA requirements. District Administration.
Zimmerman, J., Malone, T., & Delgado, J. (2011). More top high schools eliminate class rank. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, IL.