WASHINGTON – Brittany Grier was on her way to becoming valedictorian at her high school class when the Wicomico County school board voted in December to abolish class rank.
Her transcript will not show the No. 1 class rank she currently holds, nor will she automatically be asked to speak at graduation.
Instead of having the distinction of finishing first at Salisbury’s James M. Bennett High School — a distinction that can help students earn scholarships and admission to the country’s best colleges — the junior will graduate summa cum laude if she keeps up her grades.
But Grier, who sits as student member of the county school board, says she supports the change.
“At first, I was strongly against it. Then I started thinking about the bigger picture and I saw that recognizing more students would be better,” she said.
Wicomico is one of a growing number of school systems across the country, including Montgomery County, that has decided to do away with class rank. Wicomico decided to replace class rank with a three-tiered collegiate- style system, honoring students for graduating summa cum laude, magna cum laude or cum laude. The system is fairly unique nationwide, but growing in popularity. Neighboring Caroline County has asked the Wicomico school board for a copy of its new policy, said Tracy Sahlers, a spokeswoman for the county schools. County officials said they created the new policy, which takes effect next spring, because the class-rank system fostered “unhealthy competition” and did not recognize the achievement of enough excellent students. “Students were making class choices based on how it would affect their rank. We want students to work toward a specific goal, based on their own accomplishments, not what others do,” Sahlers said. But some see the trend away from class rank as troubling. “It’s an illusion for the education system to think it’s going to get away without ranking students,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research group for education reform. Finn said state universities with small admission’s budgets have to use some numbers to evaluate candidates. If they don’t have a class rank, they may be forced to rely more heavily on standardized test results. Such a situation would end up hurting poor and minority students who tend not to do as well on tests. But Montgomery County officials counter that the class rankings themselves were often an illusion — and an unfair one, at that. “There were just fractions of points between student’s GPAs (grade-point averages),” said Patricia B. O’Neill, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. County officials felt the rank system was punishing students. “We want to recognize students, not discourage them,” O’Neill said. Today, the county doesn’t report class rank. Instead, each county high school decides how to honor its top students. At Walter Johnson in Bethesda, for example, the top 10 percent of each class is honored at a special dinner at the end of the senior year. Wicomico officials are working on a scale to determine what grade-point average a student will need for the different honors levels. Summa cum laude is the highest. The class-rank system still used by most public schools across the country, assigns students a number indicating their academic rank compared to their classmates. It often weights a student’s grades based on the type and difficulty of courses taken, and is included with a student’s college application. Grier agreed with Sahler that the system fostered unhealthy competition among students and some bad choices. Students striving for the best rank would strategize about ways to maintain their GPAs, she said, taking a pass/fail study hall instead of sacrificing points by taking a class that would not allow them to earn a weighted grade. Ninth-grade orchestral band and choir were also part of the problem at J.M. Bennett, Grier said. Students in those classes could earn a weighted grade, allowing them to jump ahead in the ranking race, but they had to audition to get into the class. That gave students with musical talent an unfair advantage, Grier said. Maryland counties are not alone in moving away from class rank. Several New Jersey districts are getting rid of it and West Morris Regional High School District in Chester, N.J. is debating the issue, according to a school board spokesman.
As an honors student with a 4.7 GPA who is enrolled in five advanced placement courses, Grier said she is not worried about college admission. She just has to choose where to go. Where is she heading? She said she’s not saying, it’s too early to tell.