Students can be helped by rankings and rigor
In a recent Community Voices post (Students support Albermarle’s move to end class rankings, March 31), Monticello High School seniors Lasha Campbell, Sebastian Glickman and Leah Coleman argued that “class ranks are unfair to students” and “aren’t as important as they are made to seem,” approving of the recent decision to end the practice in Albemarle County Public Schools of reporting class ranks to colleges.
I completely agree with regards to the problem, but I disagree with the recently adopted solution. Rather than simply ditching class rankings, MHS should make them useful again.
I graduated from MHS in 2009 (if you’re curious, I was not in the top ten percent of my graduating class). At the time, classes were tiered at either the academic, standard, advanced, honors or Advanced Placement level; an A in an advanced class was weighted upwards to 4.5 out of four traditional GPA points, while honors and AP classes were worth five each. Shortly after I graduated, the school collapsed the learning levels, now only offering standard, honors and AP.
Collapsing the learning levels has dumbed down honors and AP classes at MHS by funneling the students who would otherwise be taking advanced or even standard level classes into them. To this point, according to sources within the school and data compiled by the Department of Education, a student at Monticello High School is now more likely to take an AP class than they are to take the SAT or ACT. [see note below]
If we are serious when we say that AP classes are analogous to college work, then we should also expect them to be populated by students who are at least thinking about going to college.
While a quantity-over-quality AP program looks good for MHS’ administration, it’s unfair to the students actually enrolled in the classes, regardless of how well they do in them. From a college’s point of view, not only are the students enrolled in AP classes at MHS less likely to be getting preparation for college work, but it’s also harder to distinguish them from students enrolled in honors classes that ostensibly receive the same GPA weight. And for the students who would otherwise excel in an AP class taught at the college level, they no longer have the opportunity to do so.
And if high schools are less able to distinguish their great students from their good ones, it’s no wonder that colleges are less sure how heavily they should weight reported class ranking when considering applicants. As Campbell, Glickman and Coleman point out, many colleges re-rank students based on other metrics anyway; perhaps if the rankings they received from high schools were structured so that they were somewhat reflective of those students’ abilities, they wouldn’t have to.
Not too long ago, when I applied to college, I was told that most schools – especially Virginia’s public universities, such as the University of Virginia, that receive many applicants from the same high schools – placed significant emphasis on class rank when considering applicants. However, now that there are fewer learning levels and, by extension, fewer opportunities for capable students to separate themselves, I’m not at all surprised to hear that these same colleges don’t know how to handle class rankings reported by MHS and other schools that have made similar curriculum changes. Put simply, in 2009 it was fairly likely that a student in the tenth percentile of my graduating class was a stronger student than one in the twentieth; in 2014, it’s hard to say.
In college applications, there’s no such thing as too much useful information. MHS’ class rankings may have ceased to be useful, but the solution is not to cut colleges off from the information; it’s to make the information better. Ceasing to report class rankings to colleges is a convenient solution that helps cover up a larger problem: MHS is not as good at preparing its students for college now as it was five years ago. As long as it remains committed to watered-down standards that fail to challenge students with high aptitude, it will be unable to both identify its standouts and send them to the schools they are capable of getting accepted to.
Charlottesville Tomorrow confirmed that the most recent data for Monticello High School (2011 survey year), published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, reports that 101 MHS students took the SAT/ACT and that 418 students took at least one Advanced Placement course. Monticello’s total enrollment is reported as 1,106. However, the school’s guidance department, in response to a request from Charlottesville Tomorrow to verify this data in May 2014, responded that they do not “keep such numbers [on SAT/ACT participation] so there is no way to know for sure” and that they were “certain” that “the number of students taking the achievement test is significantly higher than those who are in AP classes.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Green graduated from Monticello High School in 2009. This month, he will graduate from Kenyon College with high honors in political science and a concentration in public policy.