School district ponders whether to get rid of class rank

Mounds View commencement
The commencement ceremony for the Mounds View High School class of 2010 Monday, June 7, at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul. The Mounds View district is considering removing class rank from transcripts, which would also remove the portion of the school's commencement that recognizes the top 10-ranking students in the class.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

School officials in Mounds View will decide next week whether to get rid of class rank for graduating seniors. If they do, they'll join a handful of other public school districts who have made the switch in recent years, and who say it might help some students get into college.

More than 400 seniors from Mounds View High School got their diplomas last week during commencement ceremonies. The school doesn't list a valedictorian -- but rather reconizes the top 10 ranking graduates during the ceremony.

That part of commencement might be gone next year, if the Mounds View School Board votes next Tuesday to ditch class rank. Class rank compares one student's grade point average with that of his or her classmates.

Principal Julie Wikelius says the top of each class at Mounds View is compacted. Plenty of students earn good grades in honors and advanced classes, which creates a tight battle for the top-ranking GPA.

Just look at the 440 students about to be juniors at Mounds View -- just three-tenths of a point separates the students ranked first and 40th.

"I can understand a student and a parent's frustration that, 'I'm 0.3 away from a perfect GPA, and I'm 40th in my class?" said Wikelius.

And what if that student wants to go to a college that only accepts students who were in the top 5 percent of their class?

Wikelius says dropping class rank could serve two purposes. It could ease student stress, and it would prevent colleges from using class rank against them.

In researching the issue, district officials say they found colleges do analyze class rank when it's provided, but they don't necessarily seek it if it's missing.

"Overall, colleges are not giving as much weight to class rank in making admissions decisions," said Melissa Clinedinst, a researcher with the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Her group surveys admissions officials every year. In 1993, nearly half of them said they gave class rank "considerable importance" in the decision to admit a student. By 2008, less than 20 percent still considered rank that important.

The survey also concludes other factors have gained importance, including student essays and scores on tests like the ACT.

"Class rank is really not as direct a measure of academic performance as some of the other information that colleges collect from students, like their grades and test scores," said Clinedinst, "particularly when you're trying to compare students from different types of high schools."

Clinedinst's group also surveyed high schools, and found that public high schools mostly do provide class rank, while private schools mostly do not.

If Mounds View removes class rank from transcripts, it would join at least 13 public school districts in Minnesota. All 13 are suburban and usually rank among the state's highest-performing academically. They include Bloomington, Chaska, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Stillwater, Wayzata, and West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan. Anoka High School also omits class rank, though the other four high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin district do report rank.

Others are phasing out class rank, including Centennial, Fridley, Orono and Westonka.

This was Eden Prairie's first year without class rank, and officials wanted to know if it would affect any seniors. Principal Conn McCarten says they looked at five of the colleges Eden Prairie grads are most likely to attend.

"We looked at the application and acceptance rate last year, when we had class rank, and then this year -- and no noticeable difference," said McCarten. "Some of the research talked about their chance of getting in improved. I don't know if we can say that, but we can say it didn't hurt."

For Wayne Sigler, removing class rank isn't a new trend, but one that seems to be picking up.

Sigler is the University of Minnesota's admissions director. He says applicants are never penalized if they don't include class rank, but he also says it's wrong to assume class rank is only used to keep people out.

"We believe it's beneficial to applicants if their high school provides us class rank, and that's especially true if the applicant is on the bubble with respect to being admitted," Sigler said.

"But that said, it's the prerogative of the school to determine their policies," Sigler continued. "And we will certainly work with them and make certain that their students are reviewed -- as all other students -- in a very fair and consistent manner."

The Mounds View district would still calculate class rank, even if the school board votes to remove the information from students' transcripts. That will allow students to provide their rank if a college absolutely demands it.

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