Imagine a high school graduation ceremony where a class valedictorian doesn’t give the farewell address. Imagine the two students with the highest GPAs — the valedictorian and the salutatorian — not being singled out for their accomplishment, but instead being joined by a whole group of students honored for being in the top 3 or 5 or 10 percent of their class. While some students — and parents — may find it disparaging, more school districts are embracing the elimination of class rankings, valedictorians, or both.
According to a March 2019 article in the Reading Eagle, about half of high schools across the country no longer report class rank. Five high schools in Berks County have also moved away from either class rankings or valedictorians. Brandywine Heights, for example, now ranks its students using the Latin system typically reserved for college graduates: cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa laude for GPAs ranking from 4.0 to 4.2 to 4.35 (or higher), respectively.
This past Spring, Lancaster County’s Cocalico High School announced a new ranking system and curriculum requirements starting with the class of 2023 — this year’s freshman class. With this new system, students will not be ranked in the typical numerical sense, but with a decile system. This means that instead of assigning a specific number to each student, the school will group students by the top 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent and so forth. At graduation, the students whose GPAs are within the top 3 percent of the class will be recognized. Based on the school’s size, this will be approximately 20 students, says Cocalico High School’s principal Chris Irvine.
In order to convert from the school’s previous ranking system to its new decile system, the administration had to change the way classes counted toward student GPAs as well as the general requirements necessary to graduate. For example, students previously had to complete four science courses in order to meet graduation requirements. With the implementation of the new percentile rankings, students will have to complete three science courses, leaving more room in their scheduled to take unweighted elective courses, says Irvine.
“I think you should have students take classes on what they’re interested in,” Irvine explains, noting that with the previous ranking system, many students were only taking the classes that had weighted GPAs attached, which are the higher level honors and advanced placement (AP) courses. With students only taking classes like AP Chemistry and AP statistics, they didn’t have room to take more career-centered exploratory courses, like studio art or music production.
“I think if you could have students take classes on what they’re interested in, it will help them look more down the road,” Irvine says.
Irvine notes that he’s seen many of the incoming freshmen, who will be the first to experience this new curriculum, sign up for more elective classes than previous classes. He likes that they will now be able to get more of a feel for what they might want to do in the future.
While ranking students based on GPA has caused concerns about possible effects on mental health, career preparedness and overall fairness, its benefit historically has been in providing colleges with a look at where a student placed among his or her classmates. An admissions officer reviewing an application from a student ranked number two out of 500 students will view that student as more academically ambitious in comparison to a student who ranked 90 out of 500. What will happen to students who don’t have a class rank during the college admissions process? If their application shows they were ranked in the top 20 percent of their class rather than showing a concrete number, will that confuse admissions officers? Are class rankings still even relevant?
Admissions officers are prepared to judge students based on what they provide to the school. Julie Kerich, director of admission at Franklin and Marshall College, and Robert W. Coffman, director of enrollment management at Penn State Harrisburg, both emphasize how important the transcript truly is for the application process.
“For every student, we look closely at the transcript — the courses taken and the grades they are receiving,” says Kerich. “We determine the rigor of that schedule and evaluate how that student is doing academically in the context of their high school. Transcript review is an important part of our evaluative process, even when rank is provided.”
This goes the same for applications being reviewed at Penn State Harrisburg.
“Penn State’s holistic assessment of application materials includes the academic courses, grades and levels of those courses and standardized test scores, plus additional factors that may include an audition, a portfolio review, the geographic and cultural background of the student, the personal statement, and the activities list,” says Coffman. He adds that Penn State Harrisburg does not use class rank at all in their review of applications for admission.
As for Franklin and Marshall, Kerich says that the admissions department uses the student’s rank or decile placement if the information is provided by the high school; if the information is not provided, they don’t penalize the applicant.
Despite how colleges may view the changes in class rankings and titles, parents are still unsure about the idea of taking away the coveted designations of valedictorian and salutatorian. Back in February, Central Penn Parent posted an article on our Facebook page from Lancaster Online, announcing Cocalico High School’s aforementioned plan to eliminate the title of valedictorian in exchange for ranking students with a decile system. Many followers and parents shared their opinions on this subject in the comments section of the post.
The majority voiced disapproval for the elimination of valedictorian. One Facebook user, Michelle Renee, commented, “Ridiculous! People need goals. People need successful moments in life to work hard. Work harder. People need challenges, rewards. The world is getting too soft and wishy washy.”
Another user, Jill Fass, felt similarly on the issue, commenting, “So stupid. Why not have kids be the best student. The students know who they are and they try to be better so they can be the best. We are not all the same. We do learn differently. Yes, some people are smarter than other people. Seems like other people can’t deal with that.”
Not all parents felt this way though. Some suggested schools implement stress management tools for students so they can better manage the pressures of competing for the top spot. Others suggested that as long as there was recognition for the highest achievers, that would be fair enough.
Cocalico’s Irvine says that he had predicted that the hardest aspect of beginning a new system like this would be selling the parents, rather than the students, on the idea of it.
While this hot button issue has supporters on either side of the spectrum, many schools in our area are sticking with the traditional rankings system. Dr. Todd Stoltz, superintendent of West Shore School District, says that the topic of changing board policy regarding class rank has not been discussed in the past five years, nor is it scheduled for discussion.
“Although the importance of class rank varies among students and their families, we do have students who work diligently to maintain a high GPA and closely monitor their class rank,” Stoltz says. “Whether their efforts are intrinsically motivated, prompted by college admission guidelines, or influenced by scholarship eligibility requirements, these students tend to be not only academic high achievers, but also active in their school community.” He adds that unfortunately today’s high school students face many stressors, and academic success can be one of them.
As for Cocalico High School, their freshmen this year will be the first to experience their new system. They will be able to see the advantages and disadvantages of a non-traditional rankings system firsthand. And Irving is excited about the prospects.
“School shouldn’t be a competition,” he says.
Lindsay Garbacik of Camp Hill is a student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park and a staff writer for two of the university’s publications. She interned with Central Penn Parent in 2017-2018.