The Maryland school districts that recently chose to eliminate class rank are part of a national trend that’s been building for years.
A student’s rank once carried major weight in college admissions decisions. Now, more than half of all high schools have decided not to report the way a student stacks up against their peers — with schools in two large Central Maryland systems soon to join them.
The shift began with private schools, according to The College Board, that felt many bright students weren’t able to crack into the top of a small class and were then overlooked by selective colleges. The trend then spread to public schools, where some districts concluded the race to the top fostered an overly competitive atmosphere and was detrimental to students’ mental health.
Across Central Maryland school districts, the policies are mixed. Baltimore and Harford counties and Baltimore City schools still calculate class rank, spokespeople said.
In Carroll County, the choice to rank or not is left up to individual schools. Just two high schools in the high-performing district report class rank, said spokeswoman Carey Gaddis.
As high schools increasingly moved away from ranking their students, colleges adapted. About 9 percent of colleges attribute “considerable importance” to class rank, according to The National Association for College Admission Counseling 2018 report, down from 23 percent in 2007.
Colleges reported that the most important factors for determining admission are a student’s overall high school GPA, grades in college preparatory courses, admission test scores and the rigor of the chosen curriculum. Universities are increasingly judging applicants based on a more holistic rubric.
“Over time, class rank has declined precipitously as a factor in application review, and high schools have gradually moved away from ranking and honorifics for just one person,” said David Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director for educational content and policy. “The two big reasons are that no two students take identical coursework for four years, so selecting one valedictorian is an apples-and-oranges comparison.
“In addition, the idea that school should be reduced to a zero-sum competition is not an educationally sound approach.”
Representatives of Towson, Johns Hopkins, University of Baltimore, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, College Park said not reporting a class rank won’t hurt applicants’ prospects.
Larry Jones, a spokesman for Morgan State University, said the school looks at class rank but wouldn’t penalize applicants who can’t include it in their files. Officials would simply evaluate other factors like overall GPA and individual academic growth.
“It is a criteria that’s considered,” he said. “However, its removal wouldn’t have an adverse effect on the admissions process if eliminated.”
Still, it’s a controversial choice in many districts. Those on one side argue healthy academic stress is important for developing strong life skills. They say it’s helpful for colleges to be able to see how a student compares to those in the same environment.
But opponents feel it sets up an environment where smart kids compete to edge each other out by a hundredth of a point, forcing them to stop pursuing non-academic activities and interests. It can also contribute to heightened levels of anxiety, experts say.
High schools and universities are not “necessarily feeling comfortable with the idea that students are sorted in a way that has some degree of penalty,” said Scott Hunter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and pediatrics at the University of Chicago. “It’s a useful tool to know where an individual falls in the big picture, but it doesn’t always capture the range of skills a students has and how those have unfolded.”
There’s also a growing awareness, Hunter said, that students face different challenges that may not be reflected in their class rank. Some have learning disabilities, speak English as a second language or come from challenging homes.
It’s become more complex in recent years, too, as students gain more access to AP and honors courses that provide weighted GPAs. It means more kids with near-perfect grades in advanced classes are competing for spots at the top of their class.
“It becomes very, very complicated when you’re trying to decide how to rank students,” Gaddis said. “Some have just decided it’s something they don’t want to do.”
Eliminating rank also opens up the question of how to select a valedictorian, traditionally the student with the highest GPA. The idea of eliminating this longstanding practice rankles many students and parents across the country.
When an Ohio school district got rid of the GPA-based honor in an effort to improve students’ mental health, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would’ve required high schools to name one valedictorian.
“It’s decisions like not naming a valedictorian that creates the ‘everyone gets a trophy,’ lazy culture that is often discussed,” Rep. Niraj J. Antani said when he announced the bill earlier this month.
The policy change in Anne Arundel will also allow schools to select their valedictorian based on qualities like service, leadership and character — in addition to cumulative academic achievement. Some Carroll schools decided they wanted graduation to be a time to celebrate all students, not just a select few high-achievers.
There have been intense battles in this region over the valedictorian title. In 1993, former Baltimore Colt Stan White sought court intervention to force Dulaney High School to name his daughter co-valedictorian, claiming that negligence by Baltimore County school leaders allowed her to be edged out by another student.