The term class rank refers to the hierarchical ranking of students based on academic performance or grade point average. Rankings may be expressed in numerical order (first, second, third, top ten, etc.) or as percentiles (top ten percent, top twenty-five percent, etc.). Class rank is typically determined at the end of middle school or high school, and it is used to determine academic honors such as valedictorian (first in the class) and salutatorian (second in the class). While schools do not typically make an entire set of rankings for a graduating class public, it is quite common for schools to publicly announce and celebrate top-ranked students, particular those who end up in the “top ten” or top-tenth percentile.
When investigating or reporting on class rank, it is important to ask questions about and determine the precise methodology used to compile and calculate the rankings, since class-ranking systems may vary from school to school.
Some educators view class rankings as an impediment to certain reforms. In these cases, class rank may be viewed as an outmoded system that has persisted largely due to institutional and cultural tradition, not because it provides genuine educational value. Reformers may argue that class ranking is fundamentally inequitable or that it focuses students on academic competition rather than more authentic, meaningful, or beneficial ways of learning. Some educators would prefer to see class rank replaced with the “Latin honors” system of cum laude (with honors), magna cum laude (with high honors) or summa cum laude (with highest honors), which has long been widely used in collegiate institutions, but that has recently become more popular in secondary schools. The main argument for Latin honors (or any similarly designed system) is that it can recognize the achievements of more students, as well as a much broader spectrum of academic accomplishment, rather than only a handful of students whose performance may be based on relatively small or even numerically miniscule differences in grade point average. In addition, Latin honors may be seen as a way to de-emphasize the perceived importance of academic competition in schools.
In recent years, so-called “percent plans” have been adopted in some states—such as California, Florida, and Texas—that give students who graduate from an in-state public school in a top percentile of their graduating class automatic admission to state colleges or universities. In some cases, valedictorians or other high-ranked students may receive additional benefits, including discounted or waived tuition. Percent plans, and their attendant state policies, have complicated efforts to modify or eliminate the practice of class ranking.
Historically, class rank has been one of the major academic indicators that colleges and universities have used to assess the quality of applicants and make admissions determinations. In recent years, several colleges across the country have stopped requiring students to submit standardized-test scores on applications; instead, these institutions rely on class rank, grade point average, course grades, essays, personal accomplishments, and other information to make admissions decisions. Yet in larger collegiate institutions, which may receive thousands or tens of thousands of applications a year that need to be processed efficiently, numerical indicators of academic performance (such as class rank, grade point average, or standardized-test scores) may be relied on more heavily during the admissions process. Advocates of class-ranking systems say the practice gives college-admissions offices or prospective employers a clear comparative measure of how a particular student has performed academically relative to other students in his or her graduating class. Some also argue that class ranking can create positive academic competition, motivate students to work harder, and deservedly recognize and reward high-achieving students who may have pursued a more challenging course of study.
Critics of class rank argue that the practice can breed excessive academic competition, and that rankings are a misleading indicator of academic performance. In some schools, depending on the particular grading system in use, student GPAs may be so numerically close that they have to be calculated to several decimal places to differentiate one student’s performance from another’s. In these cases, a mere thousandth of a point difference in GPA may determine which student becomes the valediction or which students fall within the top tenth percentile. Such vanishingly small differences in academic performance not only render class-rank comparisons essentially meaningless, some would argue, but such systems often create unintended consequences that underscore the meaningless of the rankings—for example, a graduating class with ten or twenty-five valedictorians who all achieved numerically perfect academic records. Critics of class rank tend to argue that intense academic competition can be academically unproductive and potentially harmful to students, since it can lead to a variety of negative outcomes:
- Students experiencing greater anxiety, peer competitiveness, or feelings of failure based on fractional differences in GPA or class rank.
- Students declining to take educationally valuable courses or pursue personal interests because certain courses may be considered too challenging (therefore presenting a greater likelihood of a lower grade) or they may present a mathematical disadvantage when it comes to calculating GPA or class rank (such as non-weighted courses in schools that use weighted-grade systems).
- Students narrowly fixating on numerical indicators of academic performance and minuscule scoring discrepancies that might adversely affect their GPA, rather than enjoying learning, challenging themselves academically, embracing and overcoming failures, or focusing on the larger purpose and benefits of education.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.