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Students or Statistics: Class Ranks Debunked

Bushra Choudhury '19
28 January 2019

When it comes to measuring a student's intelligence, numbers claim to say it all. To an admissions counselor, a student whose class rank is #12 may be looked at as a better student than someone who is #33. Using ranks is a convenient way for schools to pinpoint where students fall among their peers. However, what many people fail to recognize are the damaging effects that come along with reducing a student to a statistic.

Just like other high schools, giving class ranks has been an ongoing practice at Passaic Valley for decades. "Every high school has its own level of rigor and it’s own system of grading. Ranking students gives colleges a better picture of how the student is doing in their home environment," stated Ms. Tara Torres, Director of Student Personnel Services. Class ranks are determined by comparing students' weighted GPAs, which do take into account the difficulty of one's courseload. At the end of the school year, when grades are finalized, ranks are reevaluated. But for many students, entering their Naviance login at the beginning of the following school year is a great source of fear and anxiety.

Students studying in library; photo credit: As students, we are constantly reminded that these 4 years fly by and that we must cherish them. However, it's hard to "live in the moment" and fully enjoy our education if we have to worry about the "weight game". Because Honors and AP courses are weighted, performing well in these courses can boost a student's GPA. As a result of this, students often take some of these courses out of fear that opting to take regular courses will lower their GPAs and ranks. “When it came to course selection, there was always pressure to choose honors and AP courses, even in areas that I don’t excel in, for the sake of keeping my GPA up,” commented Thien Dinh-Do, who is #8 in the senior class.

At Passaic Valley, there are many students who are in all Honors/AP classes. While many students manage to do well in all of their Honors/AP classes, it's safe to say that not all students have a passion for every single subject they take. With ranks and GPA on the back of students' minds, many find themselves taking hard-level classes of areas which simply don't interest them. By doing this, students often spread themselves too thin and cannot focus on areas they'd like to study in college. This can also lead to students becoming more stressed, not getting enough sleep, and developing other unhealthy habits. However, unfortunately, as students, that's a sacrifice we have to be willing to make in order to keep our ranks high.

While class rank is considered indicative of how good of a student an applicant may be, the heavy emphasis placed on it during admissions can defer students from making it into different schools. When many upper echelon schools are reviewing applications, the first component they look at is grades. If a student doesn't fall within a certain percentile of their class, the student can be rejected immediately without further review.

Now, this common practice presents multiple problems. 

First of all, as a student who comes from an extremely intelligible, but competitive, class, I can testify that staying in the top 10% or even 20% is not easy. However, the level of academic rigor among students varies from school to school. To put this idea in perspective, someone who is #5 in their school could be #30 in a different school. While ranking can benefit some students, many are at a disadvantage. “Although I perform well in school, my class rank definitely discouraged me from applying to some elite schools because of how cut-throat the admissions process can be,” expressed Danielle Gaita '19.

Not only do class ranks potentially put limitations on students' post-secondary ambitions, but they, alone, do not provide a fully accurate representation of a student. Yes, grades are a helpful measure that can be used to determine students' mastery of taught skills and concepts, but classroom presence is just as important. "That is something to think about especially because I have some students whom I'd consider 'ideal' in terms of how they participate in class and contribute to discussion but don't do well on tests," shared Mr. Billy Goodman, who teaches AP Environmental Science and AP Human Geography. While test taking is an essential skill, the importance of being an active learner should be stressed more because colleges want students who are fully engaged in class and not just students who stay quiet but manage to keep their grades up. This begs the question of what's more valuable: someone who can deliver in-class or someone who can deliver on paper.

Although one of the goals of using class ranks is to motivate students to go the extra mile with their academics, it inadvertently fosters overly-competitive and agressive behavior among students. "In my past Classroom; photo credit: years of teaching, I've noticed that my students have become obsessed with ranks, and it has definitely led to more cheating and sabotage," explained an anonymous educator. "The goal of students should be to achieve academic excellence not driven by a number." Because there is so much pressure to get certain grades and be the best, students will often take drastic measures to outperform their peers like refusing to help others or cheating on exams. This creates a hostile environment rather than a collaborative workspace which students need in order to thrive.

Call it "progressive", or even "radical", but abolishing class ranks would greatly benefit the students of this school. One may ask, "How would getting rid of ranks change the admissions process for students?" While the answer to that may not seem simple, it is very logical. According to an article written by journalist Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post, each year more and more schools have hopped on the trend of not imposing ranks. By not having a rank available, admissions counselors reviewing applications have to examine the application in a more wholistic manner, looking closely at personal statements, activities/achievements, standardized test scores, recommendation letters, and interviews.

Weighing the other components of an application more heavily presents a better picture of who an applicant is as a person. In a pool of applications which have similar grades, letters of recommendation and personal statements can provide insight on a student's character and the distinguishing value they can bring more than numbers ever could. As mentioned before, curriculums can vary from school to school. However, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have known formats, so students can study accordingly. Furthermore, with modern technology, there are so many resources available for students to help with preparing for these tests. 

Let's face it--- numbers are deceiving, but it's time we stop seeking safety in these meaningless statistics and start looking at students as individuals.