To rank or not to rank; that is the question….

I hope all of the Shakespeare fans out there forgive me for the title of this entry.  (Hmmm, I was an English major and I’m not sure that I even forgive myself….)

Seriously, during the past two weeks I’ve been at the UW System school counselor workshops around Wisconsin (with brief forays into Minnesota and Illinois).  At every session, the question about rank comes up.  High schools struggle year after year with the question about whether or not to provide rank in class for their students.  Is eliminating rank a good thing or a bad thing for their students?

At UW-Green Bay we have a unique perspective on this question.  We have not collected class rank for several years.  We do not use it in the admission decision.  We do not enter it into our data base.  It is not a factor for us.  Why?  A valid question….

A number of years ago we embarked on a research project to try to identify the sorts of information available upon application that would predict later success at UW-Green Bay.  We defined “success” as both academic success and persistence to graduation.  It turned out that cumulative high school grade point average was a better predictor at UW-Green Bay than was rank in class.  We do not mean to suggest that this would be true at all institutions.  We only found it to be true at  UW-Green Bay.  However, from a statistical perspective (the study was done by our institutional researcher – a data wizard) the results were clear.  GPA was a better predictor of success than rank.  So we went with it, and have been happy with the results.

In reality, the overall profile of our freshman class did not change much after we made the switch.  The average high school GPA for incoming freshmen remained around 3.3; the average ACT hovers between 22 and 23.  So, it’s not that the elimination of rank really changed our profile.  Rather, we may have admitted slightly different students than would have otherwise been the case.  But, again, we are satisfied with the decision and the results.

[On a side note, an interesting thing that we found was that “engagement” (participation in activities outside of the classroom) was an important factor for students who were successful at UW-Green Bay.  Consequently, we started to systematically review students’ levels of engagement in high school as part of our review.  Again, we would not extrapolate that finding to other schools; it was just a significant factor for UW-Green Bay.]

I will also tell you that virtually all of my UW System Admissions Director colleagues disagree with UWGB’s stance regarding rank.  I am clearly the outlier when answering this question at the UW System workshops.  Most of the Directors will tell you that the more information they have when making a decision, the better.  I tell you that in the spirit of full disclosure!  Many of them feel strongly, and speak passionately, about the value of having class rank when making a decision.  It would be remiss of me not tell you that.

Having said all that, let me assure you that the process of making an admission decision is a complex process.  More care goes into the evaluation of applicants than you probably realize.  We all want to admit students who have a good chance of success at our campuses.  It’s possible that we should change our name from the Admissions Office to the Future Alumni Office to recognize that we want to admit students who will be successful at – and graduate from – our campuses. 

To rank or not to rank?  I can’t give you a blanket answer to that question.  But I can assure you that whether we use rank or not, we have the same goal in mind: making the best possible decisions for your students and for our institutions.

One thought on “To rank or not to rank; that is the question….

  1. I am going through a similar discussion with the high schools in my system. There is a strong, passionate belief in the value of ranking, but there is also my strong belief that students in high school do not need to know who is ‘above’ and who is “below.” At a time when we are supposed to be about educating the individual to his or her potential why do we keep wanting to compare the individual to others rather to his or her own growth?

    Rank seems to me to be a divider more than anything. Is that we want learning to be about? Or, do we want learning to be a collaborative process where all students feel a sense of accomplishment on their own merit?

    I would love to see our high schools unranked. Although it will take a lot to convince the traditionalists, I believe it is the right thing for students.

    I am searching for research that supports unranked schools. Please point me in the direction of the research if you can. Thank you.

    Carol Cary, Director, Curriculum and Instruction, Archdiocese of Philadelphia

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