Like prom and Friday night football, class rank has been a tradition in American high schools.
The top-ranked student claims the mantle of class valedictorian and, of course, bragging rights at the brainiac table in the lunch room.
But across the country — and now possibly in Nebraska’s third-largest school district — high schools are ditching class rank over concerns that the academic slugfest for rank has negative side effects for kids. If Millard School Board members adopt a proposal floated this month to end rank, it could open the door for other Nebraska districts to follow suit.
As schools dump rank, colleges and universities are rewriting admissions requirements to accommodate students without a rank. Even when rank is available, admissions officers don’t give it the weight they once did, according to a national survey.
Already, nearly 40 Iowa high schools don’t provide rank on their students. Formulas for calculating rank vary, casting doubt on apples-to-apples rank comparisons. Ralston High School uses two formulas. Some schools, like the college-preparatory Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha, don’t use rank out of concern that it may actually hurt its students’ college chances.
Sarah Richardson, director of admissions and scholarships for Creighton University in Omaha, said she’s observed a trend to end rank, particularly in applicants from the East and West Coasts.
“I would say it’s becoming the norm that schools are moving away from it,” Richardson said.
In Iowa, class rank is still a factor in the admissions formula adopted for the 2009 freshman class entering Iowa State, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa.
“We find it a strong indicator of future success, regardless of the size of the school district. It tells where a student places within their class,” said Katharine Suski, the admissions director at Iowa State University.
However, the Iowa Board of Regents this year adopted an alternate admissions formula for students without a rank.
“If students have a class rank, we want to consider that,” Suski said. “If they don’t, we needed an alternative way to consider them for admission.”
About 23 percent of applicants to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln do not report a class rank, which is not necessary for admission, according to Amber Williams, director of the office of admissions.
UNL’s admissions guidelines say freshman applicants should score at least 20 on the ACT or 950 on the SAT critical reading and math sections, or rank in the top half of their graduating class.
The trend away from rank is reflected in a national survey of 352 four-year colleges and universities.
Just 15 percent of college admissions officers said class rank was of considerable importance in admissions decisions, according to the 2014 State of College Admission Report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. That’s down from 42 percent in 1993.
Carrying the greatest weight, in order of importance, were grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum, scores on ACT and SAT exams and grades in all courses.
SAT and ACT scores have risen in importance, up from 46 percent in 1993 to 58 percent in 2013.
Creighton University reviews every student individually, treating rank as “one indicator” of a student’s success and abilities, Richardson said.
“We look at the rank information, if it’s there, to help us understand the student in the context of their high school situation, a little bit more granularly,” she said. “But if it’s not there, then we use any other indicators that we can.”
Should a high schooler's class rank be a factor in college admissions?
Creighton officials spend the most time examining high school transcripts for coursework and performance in that coursework, she said. Success in those courses usually translates to success in college, she said.
Millard officials said their proposed system won’t hurt students. They are considering replacing class rank with Latin labels of distinction. For example, students with a GPA of 4.0 and above would graduate summa cum laude, which means “with the highest distinction.”
School board members must vote to implement the change, which would take effect for the class of 2020.
The new system is being pitched as a way to reduce student stress and keep them from taking classes only to keep pace with classmates chasing rank.
Brian Begley, the principal of Millard North High School, said the current class rank formula is prone to “gamesmanship.”
Millard North student Celine Qiu got perfect scores on three national achievement tests: PSAT, SAT and ACT — a rare academic “trifecta,” Begley said.
The 2015 Millard North graduate will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next fall.
Begley calls her “a true genius” and, in his experience, the brightest student ever to attend the school.
But when it came to class rank, Qiu didn’t break the top 5 at Millard North. Her final rank was sixth of 592 students, he said.
Despite four years of straight A’s, Qiu did not pack enough classes into her four years to amass sufficient rank points for No. 1.
With academic credentials like these, Qiu should rank as the top student in her graduating class, Begley said.
Her father, Ke Qiu, said Celine’s class rank slipped when she didn’t take summer school classes. High-flying kids sometimes take summer school to get a jump on the school year.
Begley said her rank was also affected when she dropped an elective in favor of a study hall.
Celine’s father favors doing away with numerical class rank.
“It’s a misuse of your time and talents if you chase that,” he said. “You can shine in so many other ways.”
Mark Feldhausen, Millard’s associate superintendent for educational services, said the system should reward quality, not quantity.
“Let’s eliminate a formula and a process that can be impacted by the number of courses I choose to take and go back to a performance-based system,” he said.
Duchesne Academy in Omaha does not rank students.
Laura Hickman, academy principal, said ranking could actually hurt their college prospects.
“Our job is to make sure we are presenting them in the most competitive light possible, and because we are small and fully college preparatory and we attract these incredibly talented young women, it doesn’t present them in the best light,” Hickman said.
The school had 67 graduates this year.
“Tenth really doesn’t sound that great and yet, oh my gosh, this is an incredible young person who is just going to go do wildly fabulous things, but you’re going to hold them back because they’ve got that silly number attached to them?”
The school’s approach is to let students’ résumés speak for themselves, she said. The approach hasn’t hurt students, she said. Duchesne graduates have been accepted at some of the nation’s most selective universities, including Harvard, Brown, Stanford, Boston, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown and Case Western Reserve.
Creighton Preparatory High School in Omaha does not routinely report class rank.
Rank does not appear on transcripts, spokesman Nate Driml said. If class rank is needed for scholarship purposes, generally, the student’s counselor can provide it, he said.
The Prep student handbook notes that colleges don’t necessarily require rank, adding, “in fact, it may cause a good student to be overlooked for college scholarships in comparison to students from other schools.”
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