GHS students push board to eliminate rank

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Leading the way: The first of Guilderland's 59 highest-honors graduates, each wearing a medal, start the procession to the stage for Saturday’s high school graduation ceremony. The school board is currently discussing whether students should be ranked.

GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland School Board is considering eliminating the system of ranking students, an idea that came from students. For years, the district has not published rank or named a valedictorian or salutatorian — but let students know how their grades compared to their classmates and included rank on students’ transcripts.

Student representatives Febronia Manseur and Jonah Goldstein to the high school’s building cabinet — an organization composed of school staff, parents, and students — made a presentation to the board, including data from a survey of the entire student body. They argued that rank should be eliminated because that would help students feel more comfortable taking more challenging classes and engaging in more extracurricular activities. They said they believe the system of ranking helps few students and has the potential to hurt many more.

For instance, they noted in their PowerPoint presentation, a student could be ranked 182nd out of a class of 419 and yet have a grade-point average of 90.0500. In that case, they argue, the student would qualify for a high-honors designation, and yet the relatively low rank of 182 might well mean immediate disqualification from consideration for some colleges.

The topic will be on the agenda at the July 5 board of education meeting, and the board hopes to hear comments from the community at that time, said Superintendent Marie Wiles. If the board chooses to, she said, it can suspend its own rules and vote on the matter that night, or wait for the next meeting, in August. If the measure passes, it will take effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Is 90 the new 70?

The reason a student with a 90 average is ranked so low is, of course, because so many students are given high grades at Guilderland.

Grade inflation at Guilderland has been steady for more than half a century. In 1959, about 5 percent of Guilderland graduates were "A" students, with grades of 90 or above, and close to 60 percent were "C" students. By 1994, only about 25 percent were "C" students and more than 25 percent were "A" students. The number of "C" students, which used to be considered average, is now very small and the "A" students have become the norm. Forty-seven percent of Guilderland high-school students have averages of 90 or above.

Rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo, on the other hand, continues to have a majority of "C" students, with many fewer "A" students. The current BKW High School principal, reached for his opinion on eliminating class rank, asked why society always feels it is necessary to make changes to lower expectations instead of raising them.

Christopher McManus, the vice president of Guilderland’s school board, said at the June meeting that he hopes the issue of ranking will prompt a broader look at grades. He said the board should consider whether having all students with a 95 percent or higher average sit on the stage is still meaningful, given grade inflation; he joked that soon there might be more students on the stage than off.

This year there were about 60 highest-honors students — with a GPA between 95 and 100 — of a class of 410 students, said Aubree Kammler, public information specialist for the district. This is equivalent to 14 percent.

“I think we do have a lot of students who score very high,” superintendent Marie Wiles said. “I think it means it’s a topic we need to look at.”

One problem, she said, is that grading can be “idiosyncratic.” It’s hard to compare across classrooms to see if a 95 in one class can be compared to the same grade in another class.

She said that, if you look at the distribution chart, “the vast majority of students are between 85 and 95 percent. A decent number are from 95 to 100. There are some that are 80 to 85, and really not any below 80.” She then clarified that there were actually some who were below 80.

From the perspective of trying to prepare students for college, Wiles said, it is more about rigor than grades. “‘Did you take the rigorous courses, and did you do well in them?’” Wiles said.

One question the district could ask, Wiles said, is: How do we give students feedback so that they continue to grow and become better problem-solvers?

The district should be worrying about the learning first and the number second, Wiles said, adding that that was a “fairly outrageous thing to say in a competitive world.”

Rationale for ranking

The district currently ranks students and includes the ranking on each student’s transcript. High-school guidance counselors also send a letter home to each student at the start and the end of senior year, containing his or her rank.

On the basis of the four-year grade-point average, the district gives designations of “honors” (85 to 89.9), “high honors” (90 to 94.9), and “highest honors” (95 and above).

At the annual graduation ceremony, seniors designated honors students wear long red and gold cords at graduation, while high-honors students wear silver and gold. Highest-honor students wear medals and sit on the stage.

The speeches at the commencement ceremony are given by students selected on the basis of written speeches that are submitted, followed by a process of auditioning before a committee, said High School Principal Thomas Lutsic.

Under the proposed new approach, grade-point averages would continue to be calculated, but rank would not. Transcripts would no longer contain rank, and there would be no letter home about rank.

In order to let colleges know something about the context of a student’s grades, the school district would post on its website a statement saying that the district does not calculate class rank, together with a bar graph showing the distribution of grades, to give prospective colleges a sense of context as to the meaning of a particular grade at Guilderland; this information would also be provided to colleges in students’ applications.

More than half of all high schools no longer report student rankings, according to a report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Most public high schools still report rank, the report said, but most private schools don’t, since it penalizes students not in the top 10 percent.

Locally, The Enterprise found, there is tremendous variety in the way rank is treated. Bethlehem and Niskayuna have eliminated rank. Shenendehowa, Voorheesville, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and Duanesburg all still rank students.

Results from the Guilderland student survey showed 78.9 percent of respondents answered that, if colleges never saw their rank, they would feel “more comfortable choosing challenging courses  in high school”; 21.1 percent said they would feel less comfortable.

More than 77 percent of students said that if colleges never saw their rank, they would feel “no different” in their motivation to excel; about 22 percent said they would feel “less motivated.”

Rank is arbitrary, since grades are assigned in whole numbers, but the difference in rank placement often comes down to a matter of hundredths of a percent, the students argued in their presentation. For instance, they wrote, if the student ranked number 1 has a GPA of 98.3636 and the student ranked number 2 has 98.2273, the difference between them is 0.1363, which is statistically meaningless.  

The bar graph presented by students to the board of education at its June meeting shows that well over half, 56 percent, have GPAs between 85 and 95 percent. About 70 percent of students have averages between 80 and 95 percent, while 85 percent have averages between 80 and 100.

Reaction from the school board

At its most recent school board meeting, on June 13, board President Christine Hayes said that she doesn’t have any concerns about changing the policy.

Board member Seema Rivera said, “If it forces a college to look at the student’s application package, look at other materials, and it gives them less reason to dismiss a student because a number, then I’m for that.”

Board member Allan Simpson said he was puzzled about why the board would move to eliminate rank, since it could be eliminated naturally if colleges just took it off their list of considerations. He compared it to an applicant for a loan saying, “I’m not going to use my FICA score as part of my application.” In the case of a loan application, he said, the bank, not the applicant, makes the ultimate decision about what materials must be submitted.

Weighted and unweighted GPAs

Guilderland currently uses both unweighted grades — for honor roll and class rank — and weighted grades, which parents requested for students applying for certain scholarships.

According to Lutsic, honors-level classes are given a weighting of 1.02, and any college-level classes are weighted 1.04. This is similar, he said, to what is done at other schools in the area that assign different weights to different levels of classes.

McManus said the transcript shows two averages: weighted and unweighted, with the weighted average taking into account the level of the courses.

“For all school functions, we use an unweighted average,” Lutsic said. For sitting on stage, or for honor roll, he said, the unweighted GPA is used. The school cabinet felt that was important, he said, because students who aren’t taking college-level classes may still be taking classes that are challenging for them and, traditionally, that’s what the district had done before it introduced weighting.aren’t taking college-level classes may still be taking classes that are challenging for them and, traditionally, that’s what the district had done before it introduced weighting.

However, there was a groundswell a few years ago from some parents who indicated that their children were applying for scholarships that required students to submit a weighted grade point average.

The building cabinet decided that the district has the ability to show both, Lutsic said. “And as long as we maintain school as non-weighted for all of those internal things, parents and students would have the freedom to use that weighted grade to apply for certain scholarships,” he said.

McManus said he thought that eliminating rank would not keep students from competing with other students for a higher GPA.

Student views

Manseur said that the building cabinet had agreed that eliminating rank would be beneficial to a large number of students in the long run, although it would entail some transition time.

Class rank only benefits the top 10 percent or so of students, Manseur said. For the students in that group, the difference between one rank and another could be “earth-shattering” to some people.

Manseur said students expressed concern about scholarships, since many, she said, require the submission of “some kind of rank or percent.” Counselor Karen Murphy, Manseur said, had suggested that rank could be calculated and provided for just those students who are applying for scholarships that require it. Murphy also suggested, Manseur said, that most college scholarships require only a decile rank, and not a definitive numerical rank.

Goldstein said that some of the colleges that Murphy contacted indicated they based admission on a combination of GPA and rank. He said that a relatively high GPA at Guilderland could still mean a relatively low rank, and that could result in a student’s losing out on money and scholarships, “which could be hurtful to our community,” he said.

He also said that colleges that normally factor rank into decisions indicated they would not penalize students by giving them a “0” for their rank, but would instead “double up the GPA” — using the GPA twice, instead of GPA and rank — for students from schools that don’t have a ranking system. “Often, that would help all students,” Goldstein added.

Hayes asked the students if the cabinet had considered starting to implement the new system next year with incoming freshmen, to avoid switching systems on students midway through their high-school years.

Goldstein said that this subject was discussed, and it was decided that it would be best to implement the policy next year for all classes. “We don’t really see our rank until senior year, so rank doesn’t really exist for any students,” Goldstein said, suggesting that, therefore, it’s not accurate to say that students who are in their junior year would be harmed by the change.

“Most kids would benefit from not having a rank,” he said, “especially since so many of our kids are, obviously, not in the top 10 percent.”

“Why wait,” asked Manseur, “if we can do something to improve students’ academic experience at the high school from now?” There would be a transition period in which everyone needed to become accustomed to the new approach, as with any policy change, she said.

Simpson asked what criteria colleges would use to consider scholarship applications if ranking is eliminated. Manseur said, “If it’s a scholarship based on academic achievement, they would most likely use the GPA or the level of courses students took.”

She said GPA and rank do have “some kind of interdependency.”

Districts without rank

Colonie Central High School’s system is just like the one that Guilderland currently has, Principal Christopher Robilotti wrote in an email. “Rank is on transcripts only, and we do not recognize a valedictorian or a salutatorian,” he wrote.

Bethlehem has not used a ranking system in many years — “maybe at least 10,” communications specialist Joellen Gardner said; it also does not have a valedictorian or salutatorian.

According to Niskayuna High School Principal John W. Rickert, Niskayuna does not use a ranking system, and never has in its school’s history. “Way back when the high school opened,” he said, “the difference between student 1 and student 10 was so small that they felt it didn’t warrant differentiation.” The school does not name a valedictorian or salutatorian, he said, but does give an academic medal to graduates that administrators feel are the district’s strongest.

The top 5 percent of Niskayuna graduates automatically get a medal, Rickert said, unless they have an academic-integrity violation, he said; the next 5 percent are all considered and discussed on the basis of “their strength of schedule and performance in the classroom.” There is no set number of medals to be given, and no one outside the top 10 percent is considered, Rickert said.

Albany High School has a valedictorian and salutatorian and recognizes the top 10 students in each graduating class at the very end of the students’ senior year. The district does include class rank on a student’s college transcript, Lisa Angerame, assistant director of communications for the City School District of Albany, wrote in an email.

Districts with rank

Voorheesville Superintendent Brian Hunt sent a copy of the school’s policy on this, which says that a “valedictory class” will be recognized at graduation. These students must have taken at least seven advanced placement or honors classes by the time of graduation and represent either the highest 10 percent of the class or all students with a cumulative average of 94.000 and above, whichever is higher.

At Voorheesville, the valedictorian and salutatorian are chosen on the basis of not only GPA but also involvement in at least two or more district-sponsored clubs, extracurricular activities, or sports-team activities; successful completion of the required “community service hours,” and remaining in good standing with all sports teams or extracurricular activities with which they are involved.

Duanesburg still ranks students, has a “top 10,” and has a valedictorian and salutatorian, according to superintendent Chris Crowley. It is a small school, with a graduating class this year of 68.

Duanesburg started using a weighted GPA only to determine rank, a few years ago, in response to some complaints from students who felt that the students who had the highest rankings had not necessarily taken the most hardest classes.

“It’s always tough no matter what you do,” Crowley added. “Somebody thinks it’s not fair.”

Shenendehowa uses a ranking system and has a valedictorian and salutatorian, said Public Information Officer Kelly DeFeciani.

Ballston Spa still has class rank and a valedictorian and salutatorian, wrote Joseph P. Dragone, superintendent, in an email.

The principal of Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s high school, Mark Pitterson, wrote The Enterprise an email asking rhetorically why it is that “the bar is always being lowered” and why “we as a society always feel that it is necessary to make changes to lower expectations instead of raising them.” What is next, he asked. Getting rid of Honor Society and eliminating all Advanced Placement classes?

Pitterson said he was “almost certain it’s not the high-achieving students and their parents who were behind this.”

It is refreshing, he said, to see that the people “at the bottom” are being listened to.

But, he asked, “When it comes to denying others of their achievements, is it fair?”

What colleges say

The Enterprise spoke with admissions officials at Siena and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; both said that doing away with rank would not have any harmful effect on Guilderland applicants’ chances of being admitted.

“They won’t have a disadvantage. We will not penalize them,” said Katie Szalda, director of admissions at Siena. Asked to estimate what percentage of schools have rank and what percentage don’t, she said simply, “It’s mixed.”

Arianna Palumbo, assistant director of admissions for RPI, said that there is “definitely not” any disadvantage for students who come from a school that does not calculate rank. “Most important for us,” she said, “is students’ grades and how they’re doing in classes. Every year we see more and more schools going away from it.”

Palumbo said rank is helpful for seeing how students fall in terms of the school and other students, but that RPI conducts a “holistic review” of each application, reading the application and all the materials submitted in support of it, such as essays and recommendations.

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