Ranking high school students’ academic success against that of their peers is a tradition.
Tradition or not, 40 percent of high schools across the nation have kicked class rank off transcripts or simply don’t provide it to colleges at all, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
So June 22, when Mounds View Public Schools voted at a board meeting to pull class rank from its high school transcripts starting in 2011, parents and students alike paid attention.
“The concern or criticism that we heard from a couple of folks is that we need to have competition,” Jon Tynjala, chairman of the Mounds View School Board said of the issue originally raised by parent comments and state-wide trends away from ranking.
Tynjala added, “We need to have competition that is actually meaningful.”
The argument against class rank is that oftentimes in high-performing districts such as Mounds View, the difference between the first person in a class and the 50th is next to nothing — .3 points, for example, on a grade point average scale of four.
“Distinction without a difference” is the name of the problem, Tynjala said.
A large concentration of students bunched together at the top of a class vying for the number one spot can distort perceptions of a student’s success.
Both parents and colleges have the potential to overlook the tremendous accomplishment found in even having a GPA of 3.7, for example, to begin with.
Anya Cleaver, a student who graduated this spring from Irondale High School within the Mounds View School District, applied to the University of Minnesota and was accepted in May after being waitlisted.
“If I hadn’t given my class rank I do think that I would have been accepted immediately,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver cited test results as a better show of the kind of work she can produce and noted that students who take easier classes often receive better grades and have a higher GPA.
But for all the criticisms that coincide with keeping class rank, going without it presents its own challenges.
“In most cases, we believe it’s beneficial to applicants if their high school provides us with a class rank,” Dr. Wayne Sigler, director of admissions at the University’s Twin Cities campus, said. “This is especially true if a student is on what we call the bubble with respect to being admitted.”
Because class rank is still one of the four primary factors the University considers when admitting freshmen, going without rank can leave the University with a less clear understanding of how students will measure up to their future classmates, Sigler said.
This year, the University received around 36,000 freshmen admission applications. That’s 36,000 applicants for a class targeted to be between 5,200 and 5,300 this fall.
Roughly 50 percent of freshmen admitted for fall 2010 graduated in the top 10 percent of their class.
“The more information we have about each applicant, the more able we are to make the most informed application decision possible,” Sigler said of prospective students.
However, Sigler stressed that the admissions department at the University respects the prerogative of high schools to nix class rank and assured that students will not be disadvantaged should their school opt to omit their standing.
Applications at the University are judged “holistically,” Sigler said, and the admissions overview website itself notes class rank, if available, as a contributing factor.
Omitting class rank does not necessarily mean students will receive admissions reply letters that begin with “we regret to inform you …” if they are altogether strong candidates for the University.
In fact, not having a class rank provided by a student’s high school makes more work for the University. The University “must approximate where an applicant ranks in comparison to his or her peers,” according to Sigler.
This comparison is carried out by determining whether a student is in the top, middle or lower division of his class according to the graduating class’ profile provided by an applicant’s high school. Comparisons such as this, Sigler noted, are not as precise as rankings provided by the high schools themselves.
Among debate over the advantages and disadvantages of class rank, Mounds View Public Schools, for one, has instituted a system that allows people on both sides of the table to choose whether rank will exist for their specific student.
Transcripts will omit class rank by default, but students and parents will have the option to request that rank be published on a transcript through the student’s high school counselor.