How Schools Are Pulling Rank

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It's hard to get more white-fenced than Naperville. In the western Chicago suburb, crime is a nuisance, not a problem. The streets are clean and the schools are some of the most impressive in the state, churning out some of the brightest students who attend the nation's best colleges. But it's vicious at the top — so much so that Naperville's school officials recently voted to stop using a class ranking system.

The rankings will be phased out over the next year, with 2007's upperclassmen deciding whether to include such a rank in their official transcripts. By no longer ranking students, the Naperville School District 203 is squarely in line with a trend that is fast sweeping the nation, as more and more private and public schools are dropping the practice. The goal, proponents say, is to cut down on the hyper-competition and lessen the stress at such a critical learning point and maturation curve in kids' lives.

"It's a high bar we set, and it should be," said Naperville Superintendent Alan Leis. "But there needs to be more than wrestling over who's better than who." Class rankings, a tradition at many schools, have long helped universities and colleges — especially the Harvards and Princetons of the world — weed out the weak students from the strong, the ones with not only promise but the ambition to excel and meet the rigors of higher education.

Some 80% or more public schools still report rankings to inquiring universities and colleges, but a growing number of high schools in the Chicago area and around the country — in mostly affluent districts from California to Miami to New Jersey — have already adopted the practice. A much higher number of private schools do not share their rankings, including some independent schools in Chicago that, for example, have cum laude societies that recognize the top 10% of a class but choose to allow the student body — not GPA — dictate who speaks at graduation. Even in Naperville, a valedictorian is still expected to address the class, but that honor is not chosen until the last weeks of a school year and is not forwarded on to schools in official transcripts.

Students and their parents increasingly fight over who gets to be number one, and the damage that can be done — both academically and psychologically — to those who lose out far trumps the benefits of the glory attached to such titles, according to Dr. Scott Hunter, a clinical psychologist and school consultant at the University of Chicago Hospitals who specializes in pediatric neuropsychology."The reality is that we have made in the last 10 years more of rank than it deserves because some kids don't really shine until they enter into adulthood, and they risk being ignored by the very places and people where they could greatly succeed," adds Hunter."This is an artificial number in terms of where a person really falls."

Not surprisingly, there is still lots of disagreement about the new policy; some parents are worried that it hurts high-achieving students' chances of getting over the bar, while forcing colleges and universities to rely on perhaps less reliable or easily gauged measures or on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT.

"It makes it a little more opaque for us on the admissions side, but we fully understand it," said Jim Miller, director of admissions at Brown University. "It's conceivable a student could get a B in gym and get knocked down 40 places in rank. So we're getting more used to it, and probably half our applicants now come from schools that don't have rank. You just have to ascertain, through student profiles and other means, the strength of a schedule and student performance relative to other students."