September 28, 2008

Some Schools Drop Class Rank Elmbrook Considers Idea


At Brookfield East High School, Laura Turner is the kind of student who shouldn't have to worry about getting into the college of her choice.

She's articulate, mature and enthusiastic, a hard worker with high marks -- a 3.88 grade-point average -- who organized hundreds of students last year in Waukesha County to sleep in a parking lot and raise thousands of dollars for displaced Ugandan citizens.

But ranked against her peers in terms of GPA, Turner isn't in the top 25% of her senior class.

The stratification caused by class rank, which arguably makes a student such as Turner appear less accomplished, compelled the Elmbrook School District last week to start looking at whether its two high schools should quit tracking the data. It's a move that's been implemented within the past five years at Whitefish Bay and Shorewood high schools, where administrators say they've seen more seniors being accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nationally, reports show that college admission departments have already started to ease scrutiny on class rank, but at least one UW- Madison official is still perturbed by the trend at high schools, saying that withholding a piece of data impedes their work and forces them to more heavily emphasize ACT or SAT scores.

Turner doesn't know yet how rank will affect her own UW-Madison application -- this month begins the scramble to apply to colleges. It's situations like hers that prompted a curriculum committee in the district to recommend looking more closely at class rank; last year's seniors with a GPA of 4.05 weren't in the top 10% of their class, and 3.8 GPA students didn't clear the top 20%.

"We've got a high-achieving district with very bright students, but you can only have so many in the top 10%," said Eileen Depka, assistant superintendent for educational services. "That doesn't mean that those not in the top 10% aren't terrific students."

Unlike GPA, an individual score, class rank measures something beyond each student's control -- how well their peers are performing around them. Private high schools such as University School and Marquette University High School haven't ranked students for years.

Dave Hawkins, the director of public policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, said many colleges already have realized the limitations of the figure and have de- emphasized it in favor of other factors: the strength of the applicant's school's curriculum, the courses he or she took, and GPA.

But that hasn't kept an increasing number of high schools from viewing rank as a barrier to student access.

Shorewood High School confronted the issue several years ago after parents complained that high-achieving students weren't getting into highly competitive schools -- UW-Madison in particular.

"In 2004-'05, the last year we ranked students, 18 attended Madison," said Tim Kenney, the school's assistant principal. "In 2005-'06, 31 attended. In 2006-'07, 46 attended Madison -- almost one-third of the class."

At Whitefish Bay High School, Principal Bill Henkle said dropping class rank in 2003 has kept seniors from fretting so much.

"They used to be obsessed with it," Henkle said. "With each passing semester, it was like kids were watching their stock go up or down, thinking 'I just fell out of the top 10% and now I'll never get into such and such a place . . . ' "

At UW-Madison, Associate Director of Admissions Tom Reason said this perception is misguided.

"It's categorically untrue that if you're not in the top percentage of your class, that you don't get a look from us," Reason said, a hint of irritation rising in his voice. For more than a decade, he said, the UW System has comprehensively reviewed incoming freshmen, rather than making an initial determination based on GPA and class rank.

"In spite of how hard we say that, people don't want to believe us," Reason said.

Most high schools that have done away with class rank say they don't mind extra emphasis on their graduating seniors' ACT and SAT test scores -- at high-achieving schools, these tend to be high anyway. But placing more weight on these scores may not be a good idea either, warned Hawkins, whose organization released a report last week criticizing the use of standardized testing as a sole benchmark for college admittance.

"The commission report basically says: We think there could be a better assessment," Hawkins said. "Colleges do need some way to compare students who didn't go to the same high school. SAT and ACT tests aren't really optimal for that because they don't measure student achievement, they measure aptitude."

The difference? Aptitude is a student's ability to figure out a particular test (an opportunity exploited by the multimillion- dollar test prep industry). Achievement measures how well the student has learned the content taught in high school.

Taking this into consideration, more than 750 colleges around the country no longer require an ACT or SAT score for admission.

Other students have found a way around the whole numbers stress that accompanies freshman admittance. Bobby Flehr graduated from Brookfield East in 2007 and attended a junior college for a year before transferring as a sophomore to San Jose State in California.

"That way," Flehr said, "my class rank didn't have any effect."

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