Rethinking student rankings at T.C. Williams

Rethinking student rankings at T.C. Williams
(File Photo)

By Melissa Quinn

T.C. Williams students may soon say goodbye to the coveted valedictorian and salutatorian titles.

Principal Suzanne Maxey and Greg Forbes, director of school counseling, approached Superintendent Morton Sherman with the idea over the summer, concerned that the ranking system encouraged unhealthy competition. They also worried the standings discouraged students from taking more rigorous classes, Sherman said.

For example, a student might shy away from taking an honors course — for fear of receiving a C — as opposed to taking a regular course and earning an A, Sherman said.

It was a convincing argument, said school board member Marc Williams.

“Principal Maxey — who has transformed two other high schools — has presented to the board that she believes that while it’s a relatively small step, this is a change that could help students,” said Williams.

Administrators want to expand students’ opportunities and believe one barrier is class rankings, Sherman said.

“We want to make sure they’re taking the most challenging courses regardless of grade,” Sherman said. “If there is one student deterred, [then] that is one student too many.”

Conversely, high-achieving students competing for a better ranking might avoid electives, which don’t count as much as honors and AP courses.

And that leads to students missing out on art and technical classes. Eliminating rankings could drive up interest in those courses, Williams said. He hopes students will explore electives, which help them become well-rounded graduates.

Sherman’s primary concerns about the rankings are fairness and opportunity. Often the difference in grade point average between the valedictorian and the third- or fourth-ranked student comes down to a tenth of a point — a finely sliced difference, he said.

The superintendent echoed administrators’ fears that students limited themselves while picking their classes.

“I’d rather have them stretch and work, and I don’t want students avoiding taking hard courses,” he said.

Though the potential change has received accolades from district officials and the school’s PTA, parents worried at a December 4 meeting that their college-bound students would lose an edge when applying to universities.

But according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s 2012 State of College Admissions report, 50.2 percent of colleges said high school rankings were of limited or no importance. Only 18.8 percent reported the rankings were of considerable importance.

In T.C. Williams’ survey of 11 schools throughout the nation — including Duke University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Pennsylvania State University — nine said a student’s admission chances are not affected by rankings.

In the surrounding area, Montgomery and Fairfax counties have done away with class rankings, while Arlington allows schools to act independently. Loudoun and Prince William counties still rank students, as do about 50 percent of high schools across the country.

If Sherman rules to get rid of the standings — as he has indicated — the class of 2016 will be the first without a valedictorian. He is expected to announce his decision at next week’s school board meeting.

“I understand people are No. 1 in life and some things, but for our kids, we have other goals,” he said.

However, Sherman hopes staff at T.C. Williams will develop a new system to recognize the school’s highest-achieving students.

“The challenge I’m going to pass back is how we honor and recognize many more of our kids,” he said.