Michael Kim of Sugar Hill, Georgia, is about to graduate as valedictorian of his class at Lanier High School. On May 25, he will receive his diploma ahead of his 433 classmates and then present a speech to all in attendance. But Kim—who maintained straight As throughout high school and took 13 AP classes—is not without reservations about the system that afforded him these graduation day honors.
“The first semester of freshman year was the only time that high school was about doing well for the sake of it,” says Michael Kim. “Our first semester report cards had our ranks on them, and it was a competition from then on.”
As Kim’s comments illustrate, a school’s decision to rank its students has an effect on its culture. By the same token, its decision not to rank its students will have an effect on its culture. The arguments for and against both decisions can help illuminate the considerations facing educators hoping to mold student character.
The Pitfalls of Rank
The sense of competition Kim describes—sometimes perceived to be unhealthily fierce—is one reason that at high schools from Maryland to New Hampshire to Missouri, the practice of ranking is being discontinued, often with impassioned argument on both sides. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, more than 50 percent of secondary schools now forgo the reporting of class rank. Many are retaining grade point averages but moving to a Latin system of honors—cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude. Others are eschewing these kinds of academic distinctions all together.
Critics of class ranking, such as author Alfie Kohn, say it breeds detrimental competition, demotivates students who aren’t in the running for the distinction, and discourages top students from taking classes that have less potential to boost GPA.
On this last point, Kim concurs. “I don’t believe I would have taken half the classes I did if I wasn’t fighting to maintain class rank,” he says. “Niche electives like piano or sculpting are not on the table if you are in need of taking AP classes.”
Limiting the appeal of electives, which are typically unweighted, can be an unfortunate byproduct of the ranking system; some scholars believe the emphasis put on quantitative measures of human achievement is cause for more significant concern.
In April, Jerry Muller, a professor of history at The Catholic University of America and author of The Tyranny of Metrics: The Use of Metrics in Modern Society, spoke at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s symposium Persons Without Qualities. Muller believes metrics do have a place in organizations when used for self-evaluation or collaboration between workers and managers.
But Muller expresses concern that metrics that appear to measure someone’s value can discourage risk-taking. Kim’s experience suggests that class ranking can have this effect on class selection. He explains that at his high school, ten points are added to the averages of students in an AP class to account for the more difficult coursework. This acts as a kind of “buffer”—a cushion that the honors and common curriculum classes do not have.
“Taking those [unbuffered honors] classes is inherently more risky,” Kim says. For this reason, those contending for the highest rankings try to take as many AP classes as possible—not always to challenge themselves so much as to increase their assurance of a high grade point average.
This leads to another of Muller’s concerns: “Metric fixation also discourages innovation,” he argues. “When people are judged by performance metrics, they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure. And what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means, by definition, doing something that’s not yet established—indeed, that hasn’t been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation; trying out something new entails risk, including the possibility—in fact probability—of failure, so performance metrics can discourage risk-taking and inadvertently then, promote stagnation.”
Muller’s findings also dovetail with Kim’s recollections about the shift from “doing well for the sake of it” to “a competition from then on” once class ranks were reported. Muller observes that metrics can contradict an ethos of intrinsic motivation and that “reward based on measured performance tends to promote not cooperation but competition.”
If the dynamic created by ranking can cause friction between students as they measure themselves against one another, it may even cause a sense of distrust toward the school itself. “There are negatives and positives,” Kim says. “The biggest negative that I see is that it makes people feel de-individualized. All of the testing we go through makes you think ‘maybe I’m just a number in the school’s book.’ And then ranking confirms it. ‘Oh, I am just a number.’ In a lot of scenarios, that really is all we are to the higher-ups in an educational program.”
The Potential of Rank
While not denying the risks described above, proponents of ranking say it can be a powerful motivator to academic excellence. Some students are spurred on by the achievements of their peers, as friendly competition pushes them to work harder than they would without it. Just like a poor grade on a test can signal that more work needs to be done, an awareness of rank can stimulate self-discipline and focus.
Indeed, a student’s sense of what constitutes “self-discipline and focus” can be redefined and elevated when they emulate a classmate whose success is spotlighted by a high class ranking. In a system without class rank, the extent and effectiveness of that exemplary student’s work ethic might be less visible to their peers.
Of course, critics of class ranking often question whether that “exemplary student” is truly exemplary. They may possess some valuable academic skills and self-discipline, the critics argue, but their “excellence” may also proceed from risk-aversion, fixation on external rewards, and an emphasis on personal rather than group success—behaviors that can weaken character, not strengthen it.
But it’s fair to note that class ranking is not the only metric that can induce a smallness of spirit. Most common academic metrics risk doing the same—a reason that Kohn, for instance, opposes grades, not just class ranking. Students who are lured into narrow decisions to achieve a high class rank face similar temptations in pursuing a summa cum laude instead of a magna cum laude or a 3.9 GPA instead of a 3.6. Unless a school is prepared to abandon grade-related systems, as some alternative schools and unschoolers do, it likewise faces the challenge of ensuring metrics meant to drive academic excellence don’t leave their students with moral flaws.
Proponents of rank can also point to students who defy the stereotypes. Kim’s comments suggest that whatever the trade-offs involved in a class rank system, a valedictorian can be perfectly ready to think for themselves. Nor did Kim excel in 13 AP courses without some intrinsic motivation. “At the end of the day,” he says, “it was more about doing well and doing the best I could. It was school success first; rank, second.”
The same was true for Lieutenant Colonel Eric Husby, a US Army Judge Advocate who graduated first in his high school class in 1996. Alongside the external rewards, intrinsic motivation was key.
“It would have been disappointing if I let myself down, not done my best, slacked off,” Husby says. “I was motivated to score high. If you took the valedictorian honor away, I would still have wanted to score high. It was an honor to put together a speech, like an athlete getting to finish a marathon and stand at the top of the podium, but it didn’t define anything or change much about how I treated school.”
And while class ranking may discourage students from running some risks, it encourages them to assume others. When a student signs up for a weighted course to improve their class rank, they are taking a genuinely difficult class, where the risk of failure—even major failure—can be high. Moreover, in response to difficult academic content, students may innovate in their problem-solving and study methods. They may even learn some of the benefits of cooperation by asking for help.
In fact, many students, including those who are ranked, willingly offer academic assistance to one another. Some schools have peer tutoring programs, often staffed by top students. And group projects that require cooperation are still a staple of most teachers’ educational toolkits whether a school has class ranking or not.
School Culture and Character
Thankfully, teachers and school leaders have a powerful opportunity to prove to students that they are more than the sum of their metrics, whether or not their schools utilize class rank. Your personal engagement—your interest in students’ lives and ideas, your reminders before testing that their value is not dependent on their scores—teaches them that they are much more than a number. The way you encourage them to take risks—to write the essay with an unusual viewpoint, to attempt the task that challenges them—calls them to a courage that a world of metrics might otherwise quash. Your fostering of collaboration in the classroom speaks the truth that kindness is just as important as academic success.
By this broadening of their moral horizons, you make it easier for them to respond with grace when a grade disappoints them, or with goodwill when another earns the award they strove for. They’ll become more comfortable, more adult, and more fully human in a world where no one, not even a valedictorian, will be the best at everything.
From rank to grades to state-mandated tests, the influence of quantitative measures may seem formidable, but yours is greater. You hold the power to shape character.