Ten smiling students will appear in the Gazette next week as the top-ranking academic performers in the 2008 graduating class of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, following a decision by high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan to continue a longstanding tradition.

Meanwhile, in a major concession to those who see the system of class rank as needlessly competitive and unfair, the practice of releasing place numbers to colleges was ditched this year. Instead, the high school has begun using a bar chart which places students in percentile groups based on grade point averages. The chart shows how close most of the students place.

“It’s a good step toward making the system fairer,” said principal Margaret (Peg) Regan yesterday.

With the old system, a student might be many places behind a fellow student, despite having negligibly different results.

“This presentation shows that the kid who is 112th in the class is basically the same as the one who’s 90th,” said high school director of guidance Michael McCarthy. Most students fall somewhere in the middle of the bar chart. This year’s highest grade point average was 5.884 and the average was 3.883, while the 3.5-3.3 bracket contained the highest number of students.

“It just simplifies things slightly,” Mr. McCarthy said, “We’re not hiding anything.”

According to Mr. McCarthy, who has also served on an advisory board for the University of Connecticut, admissions officers convert class rank into percentiles anyway.

“Having it down to a position gets the kid paranoid but it has no impact on college,” he said, though he conceded that ranking for the top few students can breed a healthy competitive spirit.

Mrs. Regan was even less equivocal. “Being first second or third is just a nice thing to have,” she said. “It doesn’t have much significance.”

Being a valedictorian doesn’t mean what it used to either. With nearly 70 per cent of American high school graduates continuing on to college today (in 1970 it was below half), being at the top of your class doesn’t guarantee you a place in the country’s most competitive schools.

“It’s become a moot point,” said Mrs. Regan.

Nevertheless, this year’s top-ranked Vineyard students bucked the trend. Valedictorian Truman French and salutatorian Antonio Grillo have both been accepted at Harvard University. And five out of the ten top students have been accepted at one of the so-called Ivy League schools, though at least one student’s final decision was for a different school.

Class rank detractors also point to the complex scoring system for grade point averages which give preference to certain courses.

“They work their schedules so they get optimum GPA levels,” Mrs. Regan said in an interview with the Gazette in 2006, when discussion of whether to continue class rank began. “We need to go through and see, are we creating an uneven playing field for our students?” she also said.

If position within the class does not matter at the college level, why not get rid of it altogether?

Student council meetings in 2007 which resulted in this year’s change produced more comprehensive ideas, including total elimination.

“It is great conceptually, but harder to actually make that change,” said Mr. McCarthy. “We’re working against tradition.”

He added that grade point average information, at least in some form, remains pertinent.

“We live in a competitive society and as much as we don’t want to acknowledge it, these kids are competing with each other,” he said.

A 2005 survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) shows at least 40 per cent of high schools have done away with class rank entirely.

Schools still providing class rank tend to be larger high schools rather than private or smaller public schools, according to the survey. With a 2008 graduating class of 189 students, the high school is a relatively small institution. The Vineyard is additionally unusual in that it is one of the few remaining comprehensive high schools in the state, with a complete offering of vocational courses as well as college preparatory courses. This year’s graduating class will see 159 students — or 76 per cent of the class — go on to attend either four or two-year colleges, while another 27 per cent will secure work placement.

The decision to continue to publish the top graduates was made after Mrs. Regan met with a group of students earlier this month to discuss this issue. High performers were asked to attend along with a selection of middle-ranking students. Mr. McCarthy, who also attended the discussion, said the students stood firmly behind class ranking.

“They were clear almost to a kid,” he said. “Even the ones not at the top who weren’t affected. Even though it didn’t impact them, they argued that the top kids had earned it. The kids want to compete, they want to strive for something,” he said.

Mrs. Regan argued for the right of top students to celebrate.

“They have earned the right to some success,” she said. “There are awards for sports and other disciplines, why not academic achievement? There’s no reason not to acknowledge them in the local papers. It’s a big deal on Martha’s Vineyard.”

There is also a financial incentive for the top students. Of the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of scholarships handed out on class night (June 6 this year) at a ceremony at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, several are based on class rank.

Mr. McCarthy said he feels the introduction of percentile ranking is a success in offsetting the intense competition at the high school.

“I honestly believe that there wasn’t as much concern with these kids, as a result,” he said.

Ben Williams, a senior who plans to attend Reed College this year and was also accepted at Tufts University, agrees.

“It seems pretty much in the background for our class,” he said yesterday. “The top kids were maybe jockying for place for a bit, but the seniors are pretty relaxed about it generally. The junior class seems pretty neurotic, though.”

He argued that the statistics obsession fades as a student progresses.

“I was 23rd in my class, but I still got into Reed. Teachers whose classes I didn’t get an A in still wrote great recommendations. Grades are important, but it is about more than that,” he said. But for some students, he added, it will always be a contest.

“There are always kids [for whom] it’s extremely important, who see it as a reflection of themselves as a whole.