Does class rank matter?

Since many colleges today have complex selection procedures that prioritize the academic rigor of high school courses and other factors over class rank, many high school counselors, administrators, and students have for years questioned the value of having a class rank based on grade point average at all, District Administration Magazine reports.

“We’re trying to create a system in which kids are more focused on learning than they are on chasing the A,” the magazine quotes Dana Monogue, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the School District of Elmbrook, a Milwaukee suburb that eliminated rankings five years ago, as saying.

And according to at least one superintendent, class rankings can actually hurt a student’s chances of being accepted at a college. A situation in this category is if a college sees a class rank of 25 and doesn’t think very highly of it, even if it’s in the top 10 percent of the high school graduating class in a high-achieving district.

“It’s still important to have high expectations and we still want to offer high-level classes,” says James Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District near Philadelphia, “but there’s a lot of pressure on kids and we don’t need to add to that by creating this false number.” The district will stop using class rankings within the next two years, he says.

Teachers at Alton High School in Illinois, a suburb of St Louis, express a few different opinions on the subject. The student newspaper recently asked many of them if they believed GPA or high school class rank was a good predictor of success in college:

“I think it’s important to look at every person as an individual,” The Daily Bird quotes Sarah Thomas, who teaches psychology, as saying. “I don’t always think that class rank and GPA are a good indicator of how you’ll do in school.

The greatest indicator of success after high school, for personality, has more to do with openness to experience—being willing to try sushi or go skydiving—and then also conscientiousness, which is like thoroughness, caring about your work and following through. … Those two things are very important when it comes to success outside of school.”

But other teachers say GPA and class rank might be a good predictor of success in college, just because being highly ranked says a lot about a high school student. They’ll often carry that approach to hard work into college.

“A lot of the kids who do really well in school do that because they put in the time and the effort,” says Jesse Macias in the video. He also teaches social studies at Alton.

“However, college is a different story,” he added. “There’s a lot more independence in college that’s required. I’ve seen kids who have been not ranked as high do really well [in college], and kids who are ranked really high not succeed as much. [Rank] can be an indicator of kids working hard, and that’s what got them the high ranking in high school, but it’s not always.”

But maybe, some teachers suggested, a high GPA in high school isn’t an indicator of anything more than a student who has learned how to “play the game” in high school or to take advantage of the coddling some high school teachers might provide for students.

Going back to what Ms Thomas says, being open to new experience relies on high schools providing a curriculum and educational programs that are filled with some of those opportunities. What has happened, to a certain extent at some schools, is that schools have had to focus on tested subjects—math, English, science—and whittle down opportunities that would allow students to experience new areas at school.

Jim Lloyd, superintendent of Olmsted Falls City School District in Ohio, told District Administration Magazine that the curriculum choices for students at many schools are driven almost entirely by standardized tests. “And when you have that, the curriculum shrinks,” he was quoted as saying.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we need to establish courses in sushi or skydiving. But I am suggesting the factors for success necessarily include, as Ms Thomas knows, a student’s willingness to take advantage of a diversity of opportunity, which schools need to make available for students, and to do so conscientiously.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.