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Canton, Dedham

Ranking system in decline

Schools say it can hurt students

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2011

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Unless they’re number one, students at Canton High School won’t know their exact class rank this year. Starting next year, students at Dedham High School won’t learn their numerical status, either.

The two schools join a growing number of high schools across the country that have dropped the traditional ranking system. Locally, the non-ranked include Cohasset, Duxbury, Hingham, Norwell, Sharon, Silver Lake Regional, Westwood, and private schools such as Milton, Notre Dame, and Thayer academies.

“We found it did not help the kids, and sometimes it hurt them,’’ said Paula Girouard McCann, principal of Hingham High School, which eliminated class rankings about six years ago.

“At the time, UMass-Amherst had a rule that if you weren’t in the top 50 percent of the class, they wouldn’t even consider you. We felt some of our kids — who would have done well — were losing out,’’ she said.

Some disgruntled parents complained that their children didn’t get into the colleges they wanted because they lacked a class rank, Girouard McCann said. “We checked, and we did not have one kid who didn’t get in because of class rank,’’ she said. “Kids are doing just fine. It’s not even a point of discussion anymore.’’

Elsewhere, the topic of class rank still arouses considerable discussion, though, with proponents saying class rank motivates students and rewards academic success.

So while Dedham High School will get rid of individual ranks below number one, the school will tell students where they stand in 10th percentiles of the class; that means students won’t know if they’re 6th or 166th, but they will know if they’re in the top 10 percent or the bottom one.

“People weren’t ready to move completely away from rank altogether,’’ said Jo-Ann McCormick, Dedham’s director of guidance. “It boiled down to school culture and the culture of our community. It’s a tradition.’’

And parents wanted the reality check for students, McCormick said. They worried that eliminating class rank altogether “could shield students from the true competitive nature of life beyond’’ high school, she said.

The argument is one reason Brockton High School has kept class ranking, even though the district has eliminated alphabet grades altogether in the elementary schools, a spokeswoman said. “At the high school level, we’ve always felt it was important to get used to that kind of [competitive] system’’ and for students “to know where they stand,’’ said Jocelyn Meek.

Dedham started looking at the subject in 2008, when class rank was determined by an obscure formula called “quality points.’’ A committee of parents, students, and faculty recommended moving to weighted grade point averages, and the same group persuaded the School Committee to scrap individual ranks starting next September.

Their arguments included a survey of 14 nearby high schools, which found that 11 no longer ranked students. “It definitely seems to be a trend that people are moving away from class rank,’’ McCormick said.

In addition, an informal survey of college admissions departments found that class rank wasn’t “at the top of the list when evaluating students for admission,’’ she said.

In fact, a recent study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that only 23 percent of colleges it polled said class rank was of “considerable importance’’ in their decisions — compared with 42 percent in 1993.

Colleges placed top importance on grades in college prep classes. The strength of a high school’s curriculum, a student’s standardized test results, total grades, and a student’s essay all carried more weight than class rank.

Rod Skinner, director of college counseling at Milton Academy, said not providing a student’s class rank to college forces the admissions staff to take a closer look at applicants. The small academically rigorous and well-connected private school sends scores of its graduates to Ivy League and other top-tier universities each year.

“Ranking helps the first 10 students, but is a disservice to everybody below that,’’ Skinner said. “There are really great kids in that vital middle of a class, and you don’t want them to be categorized [and dismissed]. You want them to be looked at fully.’’

Skinner said that another problem with competitive ranking is that “kids begin to view their classmates, and even their friends, as competitors, and that can have a real impact on the sense of community you want in your school.’’

“There’s enough pressure for kids, you don’t need to add that,’’ he said, adding that Milton Academy doesn’t provide students’ grade point averages to colleges, either.

Notre Dame Academy, a Catholic girls’ high school in Hingham, stopped keeping class rank at least 10 years ago, said guidance director Joan Perrault. The students’ grade point averages “in some cases were so close — there were just fractions of a point difference — that it really didn’t make a whole lot of sense for us to be attaching any sort of rank to that,’’ she said.

Scituate High School tries to get the best of both worlds; it calculates class rank, but students can choose whether to add their rank to their college applications. With the exception of the very top of the class, most students opt out, a school spokesman said.

Kenneth Aubert, guidance director of Milton High School, is a vocal opponent of class rank, but he’s not pushing to eliminate it anymore, after his unsuccessful attempt to do that in his previous job as director of guidance at Foxborough High School.

“I spent countless hours and energy trying to convince the community, because I could see what it was doing to the kids, and the community was just married to it,’’ he said. “Tradition dictates that it is part of the senior year, a rite of passage that people are not willing to let go of — particularly the top 10 percent.

“There’s status and prestige associated with being among the top 10, for the kids and parents. It’s not a good thing for number 11, or number 13, who’s also a terrific kid,’’ he said.

Aubert said he tells his students: “You can be number 20 at Milton High School. But it doesn’t mean you can compare yourself to number 20 at, say, Springfield High School. It’s a worthless number when you leave the building.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.