Independent School Students and Class Rank

The overwhelming majority of independent schools refuse to provide a class rank for students. In a recent poll of SAIS heads, 94% responded that their school does not provide a class rank on the student’s official transcript. This is a long-standing position embraced by independent schools for a variety reasons. The primary rationale is that independent school students are disadvantaged in the college admission process by being ranked within a group of students that are more selective than the overall population of students.

Colleges use rank as a variable to determine how students performed relative to other students in their school. This variable is highly predictive when the student populations are similar and adequate variance in academic ability exists. In the United States, public schools make up almost 88% of the student population. Typically, a public school student body represents a larger variance in academic ability than does a normal independent school student body. This is largely true because public schools are designed to educate all students within their district. Even when public schools have specialized programs to serve the academic high-achievers, the overall student population will provide good variance in ability, if not a normal distribution.

While non-public schools make up approximately 10% of the overall student population in the US, independent schools comprise a very small portion (1.8%). However, the independent school admission process results in a more homogenous student body on academic ability. This is an important characteristic of a mission driven school that is expected to admit only students for whom they have a reasonable expectation to serve. As a result, the range of academic ability is drastically restricted in independent schools, causing student ranks to be far less useful for predicting academic success in college.

Independent schools focus on a specific mission that is ‘owned’ by the school. Missions are not prescribed to independent schools but rather schools are free to adopt a mission to address the needs of a specific population of students. Some independent schools serve only the academic elite, some serve only students who embrace a particular faith perspective yet with a slightly broader variance in academic ability, and some serve only students with particular learning styles. This homogeneity on learning style or ability, allows schools to be more specific when educating students. Even in the schools that admit students primarily on characteristics other than academic ability, rarely is academic ability as varied as the overall population of US students.

Ranking students in independent schools will only be relevant if the distribution of academic ability among the independent school student body is similar to that found among public schools. For example, if an independent school admits only students in the 95th percentile on academic ability, it is unreasonable to assume that this population of students will distribute in a fashion similar to the larger population of all US students.

Class rank is identified in many studies as the most predictive of all variables in forecasting academic success in college, accounting for up to twice as much variance when predicting college academic success, than is accounted for by SAT or ACT scores. However, this is true only for an applicant pool of students who matriculated within a similar population of high school classmates: a population with similar range and variance. This is much easier to assume with public school students yet rarely possible for independent school graduates, given that 88% of all US students attend public schools. Even if factoring in a higher dropout rate in public schools than in other types of school, it is safe to assume that approximately 80% of those completing high school in the United States graduate from a public school.

Since class rank is often a variable in college admissions and scholarships, it is an entirely unjust representation of the student’s ability to be successful in college for independent school students when comingled with the overall pool of applicants. In reality the least ranked students in a highly selective school will regularly represent a higher probability of college success than the mid ranked students of the overall population of high school graduates. This is a matter of dissimilar populations, not a disparaging commentary on the larger public school graduate pool. Indeed many outstanding graduates matriculate from public schools; it is simply a matter of range and variance of academic ability within the populations.

Independent school college counseling staff members often believe that colleges demand a student rank to be considered for admission. Colleges do indeed prefer a class rank on the student’s transcript; however, an independent school student is more likely to be disadvantaged by a class ranking than advantaged when one is provided. Independent school students continue to gain acceptance to the top universities in the world without being assigned a class rank. Universities are accustomed to the fact that most independent schools do not provide a class rank of students and college counselors should not fear that failure to provide class rank would disadvantage their students. There is no reasonable argument for the ranking of independent schools students other than celebrating the very top ranked students – a recognition that often creates a de facto shaming of those ranked in the lower portions of the class.

When an independent school weighs the value of assigning a class rank to students the following questions should be asked.
• Is the school’s student population representative of the overall US student population?
• Does the variance in academic ability of the school’s student body reflect that of the overall US student population?
• Do the students admitted to the school look similar in academic ability to the overall US student population?
• Are the educational outcomes of the school’s academic program similar to the overall educational outcomes of all US high schools?
• Does the school believe that the last ranked student in its graduation class is similarly prepared for college as the last ranked student in the average US high school?

If the answers to any of these questions is no, the decision on whether to rank students should also be no. There is reason to believe that students who attend independent schools are not representative of the overall US student population on academic attainment or readiness for college. Likewise, there is reason to believe that the selectivity and academic quality of independent schools are not representative of all US schools.

If their students are not representative of the overall US student population then there is no reason to believe that independent schools should ever rank students. In turn, if there is no benefit for schools to rank students, the question must be asked why would an independent school put a large portion of its students at a disadvantage by rank ordering them according to academic performance. The mission driven independent school has the opportunity to sing the successes of every one of its graduates and colleges and universities have a duty to listen.

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