CHAPEL HILL — Class rank has long been included on college applications. Now Chapel Hill-Carrboro school administrators and some students are trying to change a state law that says ranking must be included on high school transcripts.
Alex Werden just graduated from Chapel Hill High School, not in his class’ top 10 or even top 50. No matter; he’s off to West Point. But he and Superintendent Tom Forcella say class-rank competitiveness has come at the expense of learning, and ambitious students who try to game the ranking system could be cheating themselves out of an education.
“Students will sometimes take study halls rather than courses that are non-weighted like arts or CTE (career technical information),” Werden said.
Honors and Advanced Placement courses are weighted more heavily than electives when calculating grade point averages, so a student with an A in these courses would rank higher than one who gets an A in a non-honors course.
That might seem fair, but Werden and Forcella question why a student’s rank needs to be submitted to colleges with piles of other data: test scores, transcripts, teacher recommendations, essays, personal interviews.
“At least give school districts the option of whether to rank students,” Forcella said during Thursday’s school board meeting, adding that legislation will have to be changed before class rank can be pulled from transcripts.
“We did petition the State Board of Education,” Forcella said. “We’re scheduling meetings with admissions officers at different universities.”
In an interview Friday, Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said the system used statewide to rank and weight course grades “probably deserves an upgrade.”
“This is the system that has been used for decades, but I’m sure that we could come up with a more creative and innovative way of doing it that would not discourage students from taking courses which would enrich them,” Garland said.
Garland acknowledged that class ranking is useful for college admissions officers and said she would be open to working with universities and members of the N.C. General Assembly to improve the system.
Andrea Felder, associate director for recruitment at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the admissions department is required to report applicants’ class ranking to the general administration. “That info is often used to rank schools at a national level,” in polls such as the U.S. News and World Report, she said.
“Across the country, many schools are moving away from class rank,” she said. “Students often think there’s a magical line that we have, and anyone above that line gets in and anyone below it does not, but there are a bunch of factors that we consider in the process.”
High school students, school improvement teams and the Board of Education have thrown themselves behind the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ effort to de-emphasize class rank.
“CTE and arts classes, courses designed to broaden horizons and teach students life skills, are seeing less enrollment,” rising Chapel Hill High junior Drew Roeber told the school board Thursday.
Complicating the problem is how many A’s students are getting in online honors courses offered through N.C. Virtual Public Schools. Werden said these were especially easy to cheat on, given that exams were administered without monitoring and without a “screen lock” that prevents test-takers from looking up answers in a second Internet tab.
“The specific platform used, even the new one they’re starting to roll out, allow you to take tests and quizzes and finals while you can have the entire class open in another tab,” Werden said. “They don’t lock your browser.”
“What’s happening is that we’re unfairly giving those students who are taking online classes, that are easy to cheat in, unfair advantage in class rank,” Werden said.
Forcella said he will be looking at how administrators can change class schedules “so that a student can take that art class or take that CTE class if they want to … and not be so motivated about what’s going to happen with their GPA.”