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Commentary: Class rank is an antiquated practice that pits student against student

“I heard he’s not number one anymore.”

My ears perk up as I hear the familiar discussion about class rank.

“Are you sure?” the other student asks excitedly. His level of enthusiasm is similar to when school lets out for the summer.

But this excitement isn’t concerning an A on a math test, or a sports team win. The excitement is in response to the realization that someone’s class rank dropped. It’s just a number, and someone else’s for that matter, but somehow it means this much.

East ranks its students. This makes sense at first: teachers, administrators, and colleges alike should have a general understanding of where a certain student falls academically. However, across the nation, more and more schools are ceasing to release their students’ class ranks because of the competitive environment it fosters among students and the subjectivity of ranking academic excellence.

They are beginning to realize that class rank is an inaccurate measure of student success and accomplishment, and doesn’t always represent the most hard-working individuals.

Although there is a certain element of competition in every high school, class rank makes competition a numerical goal that the 600 or so students in a given grade strive for. The number of times I have been asked, “What’s your class rank?” is not only crazy, but it also cheapens the idea of love of learning. It leads to students actively hoping for their peers to falter academically so that their own class rank will improve.

Class rank is important, but it should not encourage students to wish for their peers’ failure.

This competition, and the obsession with improving one’s class rank, causes students to take classes simply for the honors credit required to be in the top 10. The amazing thing about East is that it offers so many opportunities to students that encourage passion. This becomes difficult to sustain with the focus on class rank.

I’ve taken newspaper and choir for all my years at East, and these classes have been the cornerstones of my high school experience. Do I get honors credit? No, and my class rank suffers because of my non-honors classes, but I wouldn’t give these two classes up for anything.

When I first applied to join the newspaper at the end of my freshman year, I was advised not to take the class because my class rank would drop. It is unfair that these classes have proved themselves so incredibly beneficial to my growth as a person, and as a student, but in terms of class rank, taking them means I am valued less than many of my peers.

I’ve done more work by far for newspaper than most of my other classes. The real difference is that I love journalism. It’s not a class I’m taking for the sake of AP credit, but a class I’m taking for the pursuit of learning.

The idea of someone with an affinity for journalism choosing not to take the class for the sole reason of class rank saddens me, but it’s a reality here at East.

Really, class rank limits the horizons and potential of all East students, telling them that their accomplishments are only significant if they add up numerically.

The main problem with class rank is how significant it has gotten to be at East. The yearbook even has a page dedicated to the 10 top-ranked seniors in the school. I believe that academic excellence should always be recognized, and the top 10 have obviously worked extremely hard in high school, but what about the 30 other students in the grade with straight A’s? Their academic excellence is somehow deemed less significant than that of the top 10.

The short answer is that the top 10 have taken more honors and AP classes. But this isn’t the whole story. East students are amazingly eclectic.

We are a school that exhibits every passion, every pursuit, and essentially every talent within each student. We are a school that embodies what it means to be passionate about something. Our school should not pressure students to fit a mold so that they are valued more than others.

What would encourage and highlight the accomplishments of East students? How about a page in the yearbook devoted to students who have done amazing things, not only with regard to school, but also independent of school.

The point of class rank is to see where students fall academically; to see their strengths and weakness laid out on a piece of white paper. The truth of the matter is that strengths and weaknesses of any student go far beyond a single sheet of paper. The individual accomplishments of each student go far beyond 100 pieces of paper, and they certainly go beyond class rank.

The truth is that class rank is an antiquated practice that pits student against student, and is being discredited by universities and other high schools across the nation. These institutions are realizing that academic excellence and achievement are not things that can be measured by a ranking system.

The message East is giving us is that education is a series of numbers, and we have to fit the mold of those numbers. We need to break the mold.

This First Person post was originally published in The Spotlight, East High School’s student-produced newspaper.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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