George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Rethinking Class Ranking

March 26, 2014
Image credit: iStockphoto

Most high schools rank their students by grade point average (or weighted grade point average), bestowing the title of valedictorian upon the one who comes out on the very top. But in interesting article* in the March 2014 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, Thomas R. Guskey asks a simple question: Why?

Guskey believes that schools rank students to select talent. And he believes that the practice is at odds with the purpose that (I think) most educators consider the main goal of their work: to develop talent. He claims that:

Determining class rank does not help students achieve more or reach higher levels of proficiency. With the possible exception of the top-ranked student, class rank does nothing to enhance students' sense of self-worth, their confidence as learners, or their motivation for learning.

When it comes to selecting a valedictorian, he points out that using class rank as the sole determining factor can result in intense competition among high-achieving students. It can also result in a gaming of the school's grading system that has a number of consequences, including students avoiding classes in the arts that can bring down their GPAs. Even in schools that name multiple valedictorians or the top percentage of the graduating class in lieu of a single valedictorian, he points out that the result is the same -- "excellence is defined not in terms of rigorous and challenging learning criteria. It is defined in terms of a student's relative standing among classmates."

Do We Still Need It?

With the Common Core and other ambitious academic standards, we now operate under the assumption that each student must develop the knowledge and skills necessary for success in postsecondary education and the workforce. As Guskey says, "in standards-based education environments, teachers and students unite in efforts to have everyone learn well." A class ranking system that emphasizes comparison to peers, rather than mastery of content or skills, can undermine those efforts.

In addition, given we now educate students for jobs we know don't yet exist, we must question whether class rank (especially when used to name a single valedictorian) selects for and recognizes the skills that we know are most needed to thrive in career and life. Guskey cites a longitudinal study of valedictorians which suggests it does not, finding that while most valedictorians were "successful, well-adjusted, and psychologically healthy, they were seldom at the head of the class in their careers" -- that they "worked hard and followed the rules, but rarely proposed innovations or explored unfamiliar areas."

Still, class rank has real consequences. While colleges and universities are often more interested in course rigor than class rank in their applicant pool, there are instances in which class rank is quite important. For example, the University of Texas at Austin provides automatic admission to students graduating in the top X percent of their class (X varies annually based on the percent needed to fill 75 percent of available Texas resident spaces). Tulane University offers Valedictorian Scholarships to entering Louisiana freshmen who have been officially designated as valedictorian by their secondary school.

These institutions are certainly not alone in their reliance on high school class rank in admission and scholarship decisions, and there are certainly benefits to such formulas, which have been shown to increase access to a competitive college for students from low-performing (and often high-poverty) schools and (in the case of automatic admission policies) increase diversity on a college campus.

What to Do About It

For individual schools and districts making decisions on how to recognize academic excellence, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Board Position Statement on Class Rank, GPA and Grading recommends that the context in which they operate (including state laws, college and university admission requirements, community attitudes, and what best meets the needs of the students) be taken into consideration.

Based on a number of guiding principles (including that schools hold high expectations and promote academic excellence for each and every student, and that they encourage and recognize academic excellence in a spirit of cooperation), NASSP's recommendations on class rank include that it:

  • Not carry with it an underlying assumption that academic success is a scarce commodity available only to a select few students
  • Be cumulative. The rank should include all courses taken by the student and should not be limited to a select few core courses. In addition, class rankings should include all students within a given class
  • Be calculated using a methodology that allows students to improve through persistence and hard work and ensures that the success of one student not be at the expense of another student

NASSP also mentions that there are alternatives to reporting class rank, which include but are not limited to:

  • Grade distribution of the class including the range and median grade point average
  • Estimated rank
  • Ranking of core courses only
  • Reporting of AP results

Guskey points out that some schools are adopting a Latin honor system similar to that of colleges and universities, in which students meeting certain requirements can graduate cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, and that other schools name multiple valedictorians based on rigorous academic criteria.

Of course, as we consider how to best recognize academic achievement in the world in which we currently live, we should also consider how to recognize other skills and traits we value and believe important to students' future success.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this issue? Please share in the comments section below.

*This Kappan article is only available to the public through March 2014.

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