We live in the real world, not in Lake Wobegon

The Guilderland School Board last week was wise to postpone a decision on doing away with class rank. The matter should not be quickly decided, but rather studied carefully as part of the district’s philosophy on teaching and grading students. Objectives must be clearly outlined. Sometimes history is instructive when charting the future.

In 1994, Guilderland named its last valedictorian and salutatorian. At that time, a half-dozen students or more were divided by only a fraction of a point in their grade-point averages. The distinctions could be mathematically meaningless.

“It’s not fair for one student to get all the accolades of being outstanding, and the others to get nothing,” said John Whipple, Guilderland High School’s principal at the time. “It seemed like injustice.”

Before Guilderland reached the decision to do away with publishing ranks and with naming the two top scholars, a committee studied grading and ranking in great depth, surveying the community and contacting a score of area high schools. Members of the senior class continued to be ranked, based on their averages, for the sake of college admission offices, but the ranks were not published.

The district’s curriculum director at the time, Faith Schullstrom, said of the decision, “We were hoping to get kids to focus more on learning. We wanted them to take the courses that would stretch them.”

The Guilderland students currently pushing to do away with ranking altogether are making a similar argument.

Student representatives on the high school’s cabinet — a shared decision-making group composed of representatives of school staff, parents, and students — told the board of education last month that eliminating rank would help students feel more comfortable taking more challenging classes and engaging in more extracurricular activities. They said the system of ranking helps few students and could hurt many more.

They noted a student could have an “A” average at Guilderland, over 90, and be ranked 182nd in a class of 419, which might well mean immediate disqualification from consideration by some colleges.

Therein is the dilemma. 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. The district needs to take a wide look at grading rather than deciding, piecemeal, just to do away with rank.

Maybe the district will decide not to grade at all, to use instead the more authentic portfolio assessments that a number of Guilderland teachers have successfully implemented over the years.

In 1994, the year Guilderland decided, going forward, not to name two top scholars, a widely publicized survey by the New York State United Teachers said teachers were frequently pressured to raise grades so students could be promoted to the next grade, obtain scholarships, or graduate. Teachers reported feeling pressure about students who were close to failing and about honors students trying to get into prestigious colleges. Most said the pressure was from parents; others named school board members and administrators.

Half of the districts in Albany County responding to the survey said teachers felt pressure to give grades that students hadn’t earned. “This was education’s dirty little secret; now it’s out in the open,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman, at the time. “We’d like to see school boards, parents, and administrators work together in increasing standards and holding students accountable. We would like to see them held to the highest standards.”

At that time, The Enterprise compiled grading trends going back to 1959 for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Voorheesville, and Guilderland school districts. Rural BKW had stuck with a traditional grading system — most of its graduates were “C” students, as they had been for the past 35 years.

At suburban Guilderland and Voorheesville, the number of “A” graduates had steadily increased while the number of “C” students had decreased.

Last month, 62 students graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo; 13 were “A” students; four of them were members of National Honor Society. The BKW principal, Mark Pitterson, when our reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair asked him his thoughts on eliminating class rank, strongly objected.

He asked 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 National Honor Society?

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 the students not in the top 10 percent.

Our impromptu local survey found that many large suburban districts, like Niskayuna and Bethlehem, have done away with class rank. Those are also schools that have many “A” graduates.

On the other hand, small rural schools, like BKW and Duanesburg, without the preponderance of “A” graduates, have maintained class rank and still name valedictorians and salutatorians.

In 1959, close to 60 percent of Guilderland graduates had a “C” average, from 70 to 79. Less than 5 percent had an “A” average, from 90 to 100. Similarly, less than 5 percent had a “D” average, from 65 to 69.

Over the years to 1994, the number of “C” graduates steadily decreased to less than 30 percent, the “A” graduates increased to nearly 30 percent, the “D” graduates virtually disappeared, and the “B” graduates grew from about 40 percent to 50 percent of the class.

The trend of more and more “A” graduates at Guilderland has accelerated since 1994, rather than being stemmed as the NYSUT report had called for. Now, 47 percent of Guilderland High School students are “A” students and, in this year’s graduating class, fewer than 14 percent were “C” students.

Local teachers discussed with us in 1994 varying grading practices:

— Some graded a student on his individual progress (so that by trying hard and succeeding he might earn a higher grade than a classmate who had done better but made less progress);

— Others graded by comparing a student’s performance to classmates’ (so that grades followed a bell curve); and

— Still others graded against a set of predetermined standards (meaning it would be possible for no one to earn an “A” or for everyone to earn an “A”).

Are these varied approaches and others still in use? Should teachers be able to grade as they see fit or should a school district impose certain standards for grading? These are some of the questions the district must explore. The answers may help explain the increase in high grades.

Guilderland is far from alone in having a grade that used to stand for outstanding work become the norm. And the trend toward high grades isn’t just in high school.

This past school year, the mother of a Voorheesville sixth-grader spoke of her concerns to the school board, pointing out the discrepancy between school grades and standardized test scores.

She said that 90 percent of current Voorheesville sixth-graders have averages of 85 or higher — with 70 percent in the 90s — and yet on the state’s standardized tests for math and English only 20 to 30 percent score in the top category of four, for mastery.

“If everyone’s special, then no one’s special,” she said, quoting a line from the movie “The Incredibles.”

Before grade inflation nationwide, she said, an average grade was “C”; in Voorheesville, the average is an “A” or “A-”, she said. “That tells my kid you don’t have to work hard,” she said, requesting more academic rigor.

She likened it to living in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town “where all the children are above average.”

We liked what Guilderland’s superintendent, Marie Wiles, told Floyd Mair about grading. She said that one question the district could ask 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.”

Sometimes the outrageous needs to be said. Guilderland’s stated mission is to prepare its students to succeed in the 21st Century.

We hope the district leads the way in taking a close look at what grading system — or lack thereof — would best foster learning. The decision on rank will follow.


More Editorials

  • We strongly advise all of the Westerlo Town Board members to read the Civil Service Law before breaking the law and hiring someone else for the assessor’s job. If the board still wants to remove Peter Hotaling, it must go through the state-required hearing process.

  • As we approach budget-drafting season in our towns, we urge our municipal leaders to set aside some funds for their town historians to carry on worthwhile work. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.