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Questions loom over class rank reporting

The Albemarle County School Board needs more time to decide if the division will stop reporting class rankings to colleges and universities.

In a discussion that followed Assistant Superintendent Billy Haun’s recommendation to discontinue reporting, the Board expressed concern over how the division calculates GPA—and thus rankings—and if students should determine, on a case-by-case basis, if their rank is reported.

Some parents called for a reporting stoppage to be made effective immediately. That decision, as well as whether or not the division will continue reporting, will be made at the November business meeting.

“In the past two decades, class rank has become less important in college admissions,” Haun said, noting that the 13 admissions officers he interviewed said academic rigor was the most important factor.

“If [a high school] is offering x-number of honors and dual enrollment and AP classes, they want to see that reflected in that student’s transcript,” Haun added. “If they don’t see that, then they don’t really care what your GPA is because they want to see that you’ve challenged yourself to the rigor of what your school offers.”

Under the recommendation from staff, Albemarle would still report decile ranks to Military academies, honors programs, and certain scholarships that require student ranks.

In addition, to provide colleges with context, Albemarle would report a student’s GPA, the total number of students in the class, and the highest GPA in class.

The issue came before the Board Thursday for information.

The conversation is a result of numerous parent complaints that argued that reporting decile rankings to colleges could hurt the chances of a high-performing student in the second decile from being accepted by a selective college.

Board Member Eric Strucko questioned how the division calculates a student’s GPA, which determines his or her class rank.

“I want to make sure that the rank is what we feel it should be,” Strucko said, noting that the current weighting system makes it possible for students taking fewer honors and AP courses to post higher GPAs than students taking more challenging course loads.

“Here’s a student that’s doing more, accomplishing more, but getting a lower GPA,” Strucko added. “To me that’s a disconnect.”

Board Chair Steve Koleszar and Superintendent Pam Moran said they were open to studying the division’s methodology, but that there is no perfect system.

“I don’t think that our way is any more valid or less valid than what anybody else does,” Koleszar said. “If we want to study it and make it better, I can support saying that we want to study it and make it better…but I don’t think what we have now is invalid.”

“If you’re going to use a mathematical formula,” Moran said, “you’re going to find that on both sides of the table you’re going to have advantages and disadvantages.”

Moran also noted that the changes Albemarle made to its grading and weighting policies in 2006 was a time-consuming process, and that it’s not something the Board should act on quickly.

Board Member Jason Buyaki questioned how weighting courses is relevant if some students are going to build careers from electives.

“If you’re going to go into a musical program as a course of college studies, shouldn’t they have the same weight as perhaps a chemistry course or a physics course?” Buyaki said. “That’s what the person’s future is going to be built on.”

Buyaki also questioned why reporting was an either-or conversation, and proposed giving individual students the choice.

“If we can set up a system where we can allow kids to [report] rank or not and put that information out to whoever they’re applying to…I think it’s a win-win,” Buyaki said. “It fulfills the needs of the entire community and folks can go back to the colleges that they’re applying to and see if rank really matters to them or not.”

Koleszar said falling just outside the top decile doesn’t always hurt Albemarle’s students when applying locally, but that Buyaki’s idea would provide students greater flexibility elsewhere.

“Rank doesn’t matter to UVA because they know our kids well enough. They are not going to make an arbitrary decision because somebody is in the 11th percentile versus the 10th percentile,” Koleszar said.

“But if you’re applying to a school like Stanford or someplace out of state where they may only get 2 or 3 applications from your school a year, if that many,” Koleszar added, “then for the students in the top ten percent, to have that out there would be an advantage, and the second decile a disadvantage, so it’s to allow our students to be flexible.”

Parents spoke out on both sides of the issue during public comment.

“The urgency [to stop reporting] is not simply because we think the evidence is compelling that ranking hurts our students on multiple levels and is completely unnecessary,” parent and former Georgetown University Admissions Officer Fred Smyth said. “It’s urgent because the specific methodology used by the county penalizes students if they opt for an extra introductory language course or an extra fine arts or shop course.”

Ceann Wombacher, however, said that to stop reporting would be unfair to those students who earned the top 10 ranking.

“We don’t throw out a gold medal in the Olympics because the 4th place person was 4 seconds behind,” Wombacher said.

While the Board is now revisiting its policy, Koleszar said preparing students for college should still be the Board’s and the students’ focus.

“To a certain extent I think that this is a distraction from what helps students be successful in college and getting into college, which is doing the work,” Koleszar said. “If it gets focused on the system and how to game the system then you’re distracted from the real game of what good, quality learning is.”