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Following trend, South Washington County high schools to drop class rank

COTTAGE GROVE -- When the class of 2013 graduates this weekend, it will be the last year South Washington County high schools designate and recognize their top two students. The three schools -- Park, Woodbury and East Ridge -- have agreed to do away with class ranking beginning next year.

For Park and Woodbury, that will mean no more valedictorian and salutatorian. While class ranking was in effect at East Ridge, the school never designated a valedictorian or salutatorian but instead invited top-ranking students to stand before the graduating class and be honored for their academic achievements, according to East Ridge Principal Aaron Harper.

The move appears to have the support of school district leaders, but some parents are skeptical. Their fear is that without class rank students will be at a disadvantage when applying for college.

South Washington County schools aren't the first in Minnesota to give this approach a try, though.

Over the past 10 years, many Twin Cities-area schools have dropped class rankings. School districts that no longer have class ranking include Hill Murray, Eden Prairie, Orono, Bloomington Jefferson, Bloomington Kennedy, Stillwater and Mounds View.

When polled by high school counselors, none of the schools reported any difficulties for students getting into college after rankings were discontinued.

Kris Moe, a counselor from Park High School, said the decision not to report class rank was influenced in part by the fact that fewer and fewer colleges actually consider it.

According to statistics, Moe said, in 1993 a total of 43 percent of colleges said class rank was important; in 2011, that dropped to 19 percent.

In fact, more than half of high schools across the country have done away with class rankings, district counselors said at a recent informational meeting.

The problem with class rank is especially evident when you compare urban and rural schools.

For example, an admirable 3.9 GPA might not place a student in the top 10 percent of the class in a metropolitan area high school with a good academic program. A student in a metropolitan high school of 1,800 students could have a 3.8 average -- still in the A or A- category -- and be ranked 80th out of 420 graduates. But a student from a small-town high school in rural Minnesota might be valedictorian and ranked first with the same GPA.

If a college is looking only at class ranking, an application from a student ranked 80th goes to the bottom of the pile, administrators said.

Students graduating from an outstanding high school with many high-achieving students can have a 3.9 GPA and have a class ranking even further down.

The differences between each student are in the thousandths of a point, counselors said.

Officials said the rationale to do away with class ranking is that a student who is one-thousandth of a point below the salutatorian shouldn't be disadvantaged because he or she is still an extremely high achiever.

Park Principal Kerry Timmerman and Woodbury Principal Linda Plante and guidance counselors from the three schools recently met with parents to discuss why class rankings are giving way to grade-point average only.

Class rankings will not be on high school transcripts, given to students or released to parents beginning in the 2013-14 school year.

Principals have been talking for some time at monthly meetings about dropping class ranks, according to Keith Ryskoski, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

"I give credit to the buildings for coming up with this," Ryskoski said, adding that it has his support as well as that of Superintendent Keith Jacobus.

A handful of parents spoke during a meeting last week at Woodbury High School, criticizing the decision.

Several parents expressed frustration, suggesting it removes the competition side of high school, which drives a lot of students to perform better.

"They'll be competing against themselves," responded East Ridge counselor Melissa Munoz, "rather than trying to climb to No. 1."

Several parents also expressed skepticism that highly selective colleges won't require class rank.

One parent also expressed frustration that the new system is going into effect next year, rather than with next year's freshmen.

Woodbury counselor Mary Holden said that if a college or scholarship should require class rank, and not reporting it would negatively impact a student, the schools would gladly report it.

Timmerman said eliminating rankings allows students to focus on getting a good education that prepares them for college as opposed to taking courses to increase their ranking.

Without a class rank, college admissions personnel look at GPAs, personal essays and the body of work the student did over four years such as the number of advanced classes, he said.

Counselors displayed a list of schools that include traditional, private, public and elite institutions that don't require class rankings. The University of Minnesota was on that list.

Some parents of high-achieving students who attended an informational meeting at Park High School argued that, in spite of the counselors' assertions, the colleges their students are applying for are insisting on getting class rankings.

When that occurs, which counselors said is infrequent, the school would write a letter explaining the school's policy.

If only a GPA is listed, colleges accept that, counselors said. If a ranking is there, admissions people look at it and are less likely to consider the whole application.

The district school board will consider formal adoption of the new policy.