The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High schools are doing away with class rank. What does that mean for college admissions?

An unusual perspective on graduation. (Kenneth C. Zirkel/iStock)

For many of the same reasons that some high schools now allow multiple valedictorians, many are doing away with rank, making it secret or changing the system to allow multiple students to share the top spot. This has created a new problem for college admissions officers: How should class rank figure into a student’s application when so many students come from schools that no longer provide it?

[The new trend in validating top students: Make them all valedictorians]

School officials said they want students to focus on their own accomplishments without worrying so much where they fall in the pecking order. And with the proliferation of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses — which can boost a student’s grade-point average above a 4.0 — emphasizing rank could push students to overload themselves during their high school years.

At Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., all 117 valedictorians also share the No. 1 rank, designations they are awarded if they have a weighted GPA above 4.0. At North Hills High outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., rank is secret and is only released if a scholarship application requires it — and even then, the school sends it in a sealed envelope directly to administrators. At Whitney M. Young Magnet High in Chicago, which still designates a single valedictorian, rank is done only internally and the school reveals just the No. 1 and No. 2 students at the end of senior year, when they appoint the valedictorian and salutatorian.

College admissions officers said they have seen a steep drop-off in the number of applicants who come from schools that rank students. At Tufts University in Boston, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Lee Coffin said just 20 percent of the students who applied this year provided a class rank. And Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, said many more applicants are coming from high schools with unorthodox ranking systems that make little sense. How can every member of a class be ranked in the top 50 percent? And how can a student earn the No. 1 rank when another student at the same school has a higher GPA?

Coffin said admissions officers are now left without a useful data point that can help them judge a student in the context of his or her school. Without rank information, Coffin said test scores play a larger role, since grades can be an unfair measure given some schools — and some teachers — grade far more rigorously than others. He referred to a “traffic jam” at the top: because so many students have super-high GPAs, it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other.

“It’s disappearing as a metric,” Coffin said. “Then the subject testing and the standardized testing helps break that traffic jam.”

Both Coffin and Bock said they wished high schools would provide class rank. It offers another data point to help judge a student’s academic performance when the grading rigor can be so uneven.

“It’s more of a challenge for us to understand the quality of curriculum, where they really fall, how they are challenging himself or herself,” Bock said. “It just squishes everyone together.”

But Bock said there is a silver lining: Without rank, admissions officers have been forced to look a little more closely at applications when students come from schools without rank. Maybe that’s a good thing, he said.

“We do have to spend more time on those schools that bunch everyone together,” Bock said. “We look beyond that.”

There’s another side effect of the high school trend of having multiple students at the top. Colleges and universities that once boasted about the number of valedictorians or top-ranked students in their incoming classes now do so with a strong caveat: only a portion of students were ranked to begin with.
The news release for Swarthmore College’s recently admitted class acknowledged that just 44 percent of students were ranked — and of those a third were valedictorians or salutatorians. Dartmouth College’s Class of 2018 profile also lists statistics about how many of its students were top-ranked in high school, but with a notation that only a third of students came from schools that provide it. At Tufts, Coffin said the university gradually will start phasing out any mention of rank in its marketing materials because just a fraction of students are ranked.

There’s one part of the country where rank will remain a part of the high school fabric: Texas. By law, the state’s university system automatically admits the top 10 percent of every high school’s class in the state. At Texas A&M, all students are judged by rank, even those who are not automatically admitted. Students who come from schools that do not provide class rank are assigned one using an algorithm. When evaluating a student’s academic performance, admissions officers look at just two things: their class rank and their test scores.

Rank “is not trivial by any means,” said Scott McDonald, Texas A&M’s director of admissions. And as a result of the state law, high schools have not moved away from rank, McDonald said, though some have stopped ranking students who fall below the top 10 percent.

Some believe that class rank is not a valid measure of student achievement, given the unevenness in the rigor and grading scales of the nation’s schools.

“The most important reason that class rank is on the decline is because it really isn’t a direct measure of student achievement,” said David Hawkins, executive director of educational content and policy at the National Association of College Admissions Counselors.

And Hawkins said he understands school officials’ concerns.

“It’s tough to allow a student to find their own course when they’re obsessed with only taking the courses that will put them closer to the top of the class,” Hawkins said.

Some students who come from schools that have gotten rid of rankings agree with that assessment. Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and honors courses are given greater weight than standard courses. This means a student tracking to get above a 4.0 cannot take a regular course — whether it’s pottery or personal finance or even chamber choir — without lowering their GPA.

Lily Seitelman, 18, was one of 30 valedictorians at Long Beach Polytechnic High in California, a designation she earned by getting all A’s. The school does not rank in part because it would foster unhealthy competition and force students to choose between taking GPA-boosting advanced courses and standard courses that do not offer the extra points. Seitelman took eight AP classes, but had classmates that took more. She opted to take chamber choir her senior year instead of adding another AP class, a move that would have knocked her down in the rankings if the school had them.

Instead of ranking students, the school appoints all those with straight A’s valedictorians and gives them special robes at graduation.

“To honor the students who strive for academic excellence as well excellence as well in the arts as well sports, you need to have this golden robe system where people aren’t just honored for taking the most AP courses possible to get the highest GPA possible,” Seitelman said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that more high schools are moving to eliminate rank. Every year, admissions officers said they get inquiries from school officials pondering getting rid of rank and how it will impact applications.

“I would never suggest a school … to rank or not rank because of what somebody like me thinks,” said Paul Sunde, director of admissions at Dartmouth. He said he gets inquiries from school officials every year who are weighing get rid of class rankings. “If that makes an admission officer’s job a little harder, that’s what we’re here to do.”