Complicated Rank and Grading System Now Slated for a Possible Overhaul by Administrators and Students
High school class rankings yield one winner come graduation, and the competition to become valedictorian requires some strategy at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. Taking a class called Stock Market or Sports Management could push you ahead. Architecture and Island Cooking don't help or harm, but Journalism or Introduction to Law could set you back.
It's not the difficulty of the class or the teacher that students are navigating. The difference between these electives is their weight. An A grade in a regional high school class can yield a grade point average from 4.00 to 6.50, depending on which of the five class levels it falls under. A D-minus in an honors class tallies a 2.67 grade point average, while the same grade in a college II class earns a 0.67.
The rule book on weighting - and class rank itself - may change for this fall's incoming freshmen, curtailing the strategy game. High school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan and director of guidance Michael McCarthy are working on an administrative proposal to present to the school committee this summer to change the student handbook and program of studies.
"They work their schedules so they get optimum GPA levels," Mrs. Regan said. "We need to go through and see, are we creating an uneven playing field for our students?"
At the regional high school electives can be unweighted - having no effect on grade point average - or fall under four different levels: college A, college I, college II or multi-level, which can be either honors level or college I, depending on what students negotiate with teachers on an individual basis. If an A student who takes mostly honors classes takes Advanced Computer Applications, a college level class, his or her grade point average would actually drop - even if he or she got an A.
In addition to restructuring the weight system for electives, class rank may be replaced by a percentile ranking system that groups students in grade point average ranges. Instead of ranking a student 25th in a class of 250, for example, the student would be told that he or she ranks in the top 10 per cent of the class and is one of four students with a grade point average between 5.80 and 5.85.
Plotting out the number of students in each range creates a bell curve, with most students falling somewhere in the middle and the fewest students falling at either extreme. Instead of seeing their academic performance as a number that fluctuates based on the progress of the whole class, students see their actual grade point average in the larger context of the bell curve.
Class rank is now used at the regional high school for college transcripts and applications, scholarship eligibility and applications, determining speakers at graduation and eligibility for the National Honor Society, as well as book awards on honors night at the high school. Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions lists a student's class rank as the fourth most important factor in college admissions based on surveys of admissions officers.
"Because GPA is based upon tenths, hundredths and thousandths of a point, a kid that's ranked 100th right now could only be ranked a couple hundredths of a point away from the kid 20 below them," Mr. McCarthy said. "Is there really such a significant difference in their performance at the school when they're a hundredth of a point different?"
Students were the first to raise the issue of changing the system. The student council made four recommendations to the administration last month, including a ranking system based on grade point average percentiles, electives offered at the level students choose, some electives offered pass/fail and a new status quo for student speakers at graduation.
The student council also asked that only the first and second-ranked students be identified in order to give the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches. Instead of designating the third-ranked student class essayist, the graduation speech would be won through an anonymous essay contest.
Student council president Duncan Pickard, who will attend Tufts University in the fall, experienced the shortcomings of the present weighting system firsthand. He aced four semester-long computer classes at the college I level between his freshman and sophomore years.
"It didn't stop me from taking the classes, but it definitely hurt [my GPA]," Mr. Pickard said. "It's something that everyone's going to be opinionated about because it's so crucial in terms of college acceptance."
After receiving the student council's recommendations, Mr. McCarthy surveyed 22 New England high schools: 10 in Massachusetts and 12 in Connecticut. This and other research findings were presented in a special open summit meeting of the school advisory council at the end of April.
"We need to be careful not to jeopardize our kids' ability to get into a competitive college," said Mr. McCarthy. "That's the key." The New York Times reported in March on the trend to eliminate class rank. Mr. McCarthy and the students' research showed that replacing class rank with the bell curve percentiling system would provide colleges more than enough information.
Mrs. Regan said the percentile system has the potential to improve both college applications and the psychological well-being of college-bound students, who experience enormous pressure to gain entrance to the schools of their choice.
"Those kinds of numerical specifications can be very disheartening to a lot of kids," Mrs. Regan said about class rank. "It's much more elucidating to know, not only is your GPA this, but you fall into the high percentile, or the average percentile."
Some students also expect that eliminating class rank would mitigate what some students view as an unhealthy level of competition at the high school.
"Some of the kids are really cut-throat," said high school senior Katherine Wilson, who will take a gap year to study farming and conservation in New Zealand and Australia. "Class rank gives you more ammunition to gang up on people. It adds to the competition and it doesn't need to be at the school."
Although the move to overhaul class rank began as a student initiative, it follows a nationwide trend. Private schools were the first to eliminate class rank, since smaller school populations and high levels of competition and performance make class rank a misleading or even meaningless statistic. Instead of just eliminating class rank, larger public schools are more likely to supplement or replace it.
Last fall, the guidance department sent students' grade point averages and class ranks to colleges along with a list of the school's highest, lowest and median grade point averages. For the class of 2010, guidance counselors may send grade point averages along with a percentile - i.e. top 15 per cent of the class - and the bell curve that shows the range that student falls in.
"It's a way of lessening the numerical one, two, three rank and looking at the overall achievement of the students in the school," Mrs. Regan said. "We want to give [colleges] as much information as we can without creating this rat race in our school."