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Following a trend, York Suburban might ditch class rank

York Suburban Senior High School in Spring Garden Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York Suburban School District officials are mulling eliminating class rank, a move that's becoming increasingly popular in districts throughout Pennsylvania and the U.S.

"I believe it is an antiquated process that doesn’t have relevance in today’s world," Superintendent Timothy Williams said.

On Dec. 2, district officials introduced a proposal to phase out the practice, which assigns a numerical ranking to students based on their grade point average. The board plans to vote on the proposal Monday, Dec. 16.

The 2020 graduating class would still use rank as it is under existing policy, but rank would be modified in 2021 and 2022 to not appear on records or transcripts unless requested by students and would no longer be calculated for the class of 2023.

Valedictorian and salutatorian would still be recognized under the new policy, but academic medals would no longer be awarded to the top 10 students by grade point average. Instead, any student with a 4.0 GPA or higher would receive an academic medal, under the proposed policy.

The trend started with private schools, and public high schools have been moving away from class rank for more than a decade, citing reasons such as large differences between rankings of different schools and unhealthy competition between students.

York Suburban School District Superintendent Dr. Timothy Williams.  John A. Pavoncello photo

“Largely, their theory behind doing it is that the class rank actually hurts students in terms of college admissions because our top 10% student may be far better than someone else’s top 5% student," said high school Principal Brian Ellis.

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York Suburban in its research cited a 2016 Philadelphia Inquirer article that showed West Chester Area School District students had been rejected from top schools because of rank, despite possessing other desirable qualities.

But colleges and universities are also looking at rank less than they used to.

A 2019 National Association of School Admissions Counseling report showed about 9% of colleges nationally saw rank as having considerable importance over admissions cycles from 2016 to 2018, compared with 23% in 2007.

Penn State York does not look at rank at all, said Ryan Service, the school's director of enrollment services. He said about two-thirds of the college's decision comes from rigor in academic courses, with other elements, such as standardized tests and extracurriculars, rounding out the process.

York Suburban graduation, Thursday, May 25, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Millersville University Admissions Director Katy Charles said fewer high schools are reporting rank on their applications, so officials only use it if available.

"However, not having a class rank does not hurt students’ chances of admission," she said in an email. "We would not hold it against them if their school doesn’t report it."

Still, in York County many districts do still use rank to make students more attractive to colleges and universities.

The York Dispatch polled the county's other 15 public school districts, and of the eight that responded before deadline, all of them used class rank.

Southern York County School District only calculates rank for the purpose of determining valedictorian and salutatorian, as York Suburban would eventually do under its proposed policy.

West York Area, West Shore, South Western and Northern York County school districts note rank is included on student transcripts. Dover Area and Dallastown Area school districts release rank upon request.

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And South Western's secretary to the superintendent, Duane Bull, said almost every college and scholarship application asks for it.

“I can't say if colleges are using it, but they are certainly still asking for it on applications," he said in an email, quoting officials from the high school’s counseling office.

South Western High School Commencement at the school in Hanover, Friday, May 31, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Some within the education field say there are still benefits to using class rank.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals noted that Texas and California require state universities to admit students based on rank, and it's helped student from low-performing, high-poverty schools, according to a 2010 association article revised in July.

"It appears that using class rank as one factor for admission to competitive colleges does increase diversity and results in a wider range of high schools sending students to those universities," the article states.

Daniel Green, vice president of enrollment management at York College, wrote in an email response that although many high schools do not include rank on their transcripts, it is helpful in admissions.

“If students can persist and thrive to rise to the top of the (high school) class, but by no fault of their own, higher level courses are not offered, that perseverance of the student is a good indicator of their ability to succeed in college,” he said.

“As a matter of fact if all we had was the class rank alone, I would admit a valedictorian or salutatorian of any high school across the country, regardless of SATs or GPAs,” he added.

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York Suburban board member Ellen Freireich questioned what the district would use in place of rank to measure students, and the principal pointed to an online class profile, which explains the district's grading system, among other student comparison data.

Board member Joel Sears noted that he wanted to see some measurement for success if class rank was eliminated.

Ellis, the principal, said York Suburban is actually trailing national acceptance rates to top schools listed in U.S. News and World Report, according to the district's student-reported acceptances, and that's something he can track going forward.

He also plans to look at the social and emotional benefits through student surveys. Many students at York Suburban have chosen weighted courses, and 70% of students in the top 10% said they would have had less anxiety without class rank.

The board's student representative, Sophia Guyer, could attest to that.

”I would say class rank does hurt more than it does help from what I’ve seen, just because it’s what kids really focus on," she said.

Williams, Suburban's superintendent, anticipated some disagreement over the issue when it comes up for a vote Monday.

"I’m not sure where the vote will end up," he said. "I don’t think it will be unanimous one way or the other."