York Suburban board axes class rank

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

A York Suburban School District proposal to drop class rank as a measure of student performance was approved by the school board Monday, but it wasn't a unanimous decision.

Three board members voted against the proposal, noting that the district should not be discouraging the hard work that goes into attaining class rank or taking away well-earned recognition from students.

"I just do not believe as an academic institution that we should downplay academic achievement," said board member Michael Thoman.

The school board's Academic Standards and Curriculum Committee made a motion to recommend approval of the administration's proposal, which would phase out the use of class rank by 2023.

Thoman and board members Ellen Freireich and James Sanders voted against the move. Board President John Posenau, Vice President Lois Ann Schroeder and members Richard Robinson, Steven Scalet, Joel Sears and Steven Sullivan voted in favor of the proposal.

Under the new policy, the 2020 graduating class will still use rank, but rank will be modified in 2021 and 2022 to not appear on records or transcripts unless requested by students and will no longer be calculated for the class of 2023.

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The entire proposal can be found online on the Dec. 16 board agenda, with links to administrative research, which shows York County is trailing a national trend of high schools eliminating class rank.

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.

But York Suburban would be taking a more unusual step compared with others in York County. Eight of the county's 15 other districts still calculate class rank. 

Dr. Timothy Williams, York Suburban's new superintendent, meets with Wendy Eriwin, his administrative assistant, about a bussing issue, Monday, August 13, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

"It seems to me this has become antiquated," Schroeder said. "It’s the — I’ll call it the rat race — continually trying to compete against each other through the course of four years that worried me."

Residents and taxpayers are divided on the issue, judging by reaction to the proposal on social media. Some say removing class rank means they won't be prepared for the real world, fails to reward them for hard work and could affect their scholarships.

But others said rank is becoming an outdated practice and creates too much unneeded competition, while students are still rewarded in other ways.

Under Suburban's new system, students who earn a 4.0 grade point average or higher will receive academic medals instead of the top 10, and students who earn a 3.8 GPA or higher will also earn some recognition, Superintendent Timothy Williams said.

Valedictorian and salutatorian will still be calculated at the end of the year.

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"While we’re not doing ranking in this proposal, we are extending recognition to really good students who work hard their whole time in the high school and recognizing them in a significant way," Williams said.

Posenau said he was a skeptic at first, but he and Sears were both won over by the research.

"I think what we’re seeing is that instead of downplaying academics it actually up-plays academics," Sears said, noting that the top 10 students could actually have GPAs below 4.0 depending on the year, so the new policy is more rigorous.

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High school Principal Brian Ellis said the district's class profiles are more than sufficient to show colleges that students are up to snuff. 

"One of the things that colleges always want to know is are the students taking the most challenging courses possible," he said.

The profile, available online and included with applications and transcripts, shows which courses in the high school are most rigorous in each grade and highlights information such as the district's national merit program and SAT participation rates and scores.

Penn State York no longer considers class rank, looking primarily at class rigor, the school's director of enrollment services, Ryan Service, has said, but York College officials noted that rank does not hurt students, and in fact is very beneficial.

Sears had asked that the implementation be monitored and measured, which Williams said the district will have plenty of time to do. The change will start next year, when the district's eighth grade students become freshmen.

"The full impact of this change won’t be known for at least five years," he said.