Schools avoid class ranking, vexing colleges
By Alan Finder
© 2006 New York Times
March 5, 2006
Application files are piled high this month in colleges across the country. Admissions officers are poring over essays and recommendation letters, scouring transcripts and standardized test scores. But something is missing from many applications: a class ranking, once a major component in admissions decisions.
In the cat-and-mouse maneuvering over admission to prestigious colleges and universities, thousands of high schools have simply stopped providing that information, concluding it could harm the chances of their very good, but not best, students.
Canny college officials, in turn, have found a tactical way to respond. Using broad data that high schools often provide, like a distribution of grade averages for an entire senior class, they essentially recreate an applicant's class rank.
The process has left them exasperated.
"If we're looking at your son or daughter and you want us to know that they are among the best in their school, without a rank we don't necessarily know that," said Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College.
William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, said, "There's a movement these days to not let anybody know that a kid has done better than other kids."
Admissions directors say the strategy can backfire. When high schools do not provide enough general information to recreate the class rank calculation, many admissions directors say they have little choice but to do something virtually no one wants them to do: give more weight to scores on the SAT and other standardized exams.
But high schools persist. The Miami-Dade County School Board decided last month to discontinue class rankings. Jeanne Friedman, the principal of Miami Beach High School and chairwoman of a committee of principals that lobbied to end ranking, said principals thought it would cut down on competition in schools and force college admissions officials to look more closely at each applicant.
"When you don't rank, then they have to look at the total child," Dr. Friedman said.
The shift away from class rank began with private schools making calculations that admissions officers might not look favorably on a student with an A- minus average and strong SAT scores who ranked 25th or 35th in a talented class of 150 students. But the movement has accelerated over the past five years or so, many deans of admissions say. Now nearly 40 percent of all high schools have either stopped ranking their students or have ceased giving that information to colleges, according to a survey released last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents high school guidance counselors and college admissions officers.
At Kenyon College in Ohio, 60 percent of the students who enrolled last fall as freshmen did not apply with a class ranking. At Vanderbilt, 57 percent of those who applied for admission this year did not have a class rank. Last year, 51 percent of the applicants at Swarthmore and at the University of Massachusetts had no class rank, as did 42 percent of applicants to the University of Oregon.
Many college deans deplore the trend, saying it forces them to either recreate class rank, make less informed decisions or overemphasize results on standardized tests.
That is because when a high school provides a student's grade point average without giving class rank or other information that puts the grade in context, it significantly diminishes the meaning of the grade, Mr. Shain and a dozen other admissions directors said.
"If a kid has a B-plus record, what does that mean?" said Jim Miller, the dean of admissions at Brown University. "If a school doesn't give any A's, it could be a very good record. You've got to position the kids in some relative environment."
Mr. Shain said the lack of information could result in judging the student more on standardized test results, something he said was counterproductive.
"The less information a school gives you, the more whimsical our decisions will be," he said. "And I don't know why a school would do that."
While admissions officials emphasize the need for class rankings to view a student in context, the impulse to do away with rankings came from parents and high school administrators who thought colleges were failing to view students in their full context when they used shortcuts like class rank.
Sometimes students are separated in class rankings by a few hundredths of a point in a four-point grading system, in which an A is worth four points and a B three points. In the most competitive private and public high schools, the gap between a student ranked second and one ranked 14th can be minuscule. Private schools in particular make this argument.
"Especially in schools that are smaller, ranking is something that could hurt applicants," said Myronee A. Simpson, associate director of college guidance at the Ranney School, a private school in Tinton Falls, N.J. "Our top 10 percent of the class here, since we have 46 seniors, would be four or five students." Some high schools have other motivations for eliminating class ranking: to restrain cutthroat competition among students and to encourage them to take challenging courses without worrying about their grades.
"The day that we handed out numerical rank was one of the worst days in my professional life," said Margaret Loonam, a co-principal and director of guidance at Ridgewood High School, a public school in northern New Jersey that stopped telling students and colleges about class rank a decade ago. "They were sobbing. Only one person is happy when you hand out rank: the person who is No. 1."
"In a school like this, where the top 30 percent of the class is strong academically, it was unfair to all of those students who are in that elite group," Mrs. Loonam said.
At some schools, including Ridgewood, officials continue to maintain class rankings in secret, disclosing them only when absolutely necessary, like when a student is applying to military academies, which require class rank, or when they are competing for merit scholarships that require the information. When high schools do not provide rankings, the broad information they sometimes include about grades can come in many forms: a bar graph showing how many students in a class had grade averages of A-minus to A or B-plus to B; a table listing grade averages by deciles (which averages fell in the top 10 percent of a class, for example); and even a graphic device called a scattergram, which shows the distribution of grades by plotting a dot for each grade average in a graduating class.
That allows colleges to estimate where a student ranks.
Still, some institutions, especially larger universities, may not have the time for that.
"If we're looking at a particular student's file and we can't find a proxy for class rank, then we move on and we make a decision without it," said Martha F. Pitts, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Oregon. "The question is, how good is that decision? Have we made a decision that is not as well informed as it could have been?"
For some, the decline of class rankings represents an opportunity. "I think it kind of frees us in some ways; it enables us to take the kids who are a joy to teach," said Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. "It allows you to tailor your admission process to what your institution strives for."
But that is a distinctly minority view. Mr. Shain of Vanderbilt said an internal review showed that the admission rate at Vanderbilt was highest for students with a class rank and lowest for those whose schools provided neither a rank nor general data about grades.
"You're saying your grades don't matter and that you won't tell us what they mean," Mr. Shain said. "I think it's an abdication of educational responsibility."
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