Saturday, March 4, 2006

How Not To Use Numbers: High Schools Withhold Student Rankings

A recent New York Times article, Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges, illustrates how not to use numbers.

The core problem is this: Grade point averages are subjective and minimally standardized. Some high schools give out “A”s easier than other high schools. This causes colleges to request not only a student’s grade point average but also the student’s class rank. The rank provides a reference point for what the student’s grade point average is worth at the student’s school.

But if we learn from student rankings that a school has double the percentage of “A” students as the average, should the lower half of those “A” students’ achievements be devalued? Maybe the school just has more smart students than average. The usual problems with using averages aside, many high schools’ argument boils down to: “My school’s 85th-percentile-ranked student might be better than another school’s 95th-percentile student.”

So far we have reasonable points on both sides. But where you’d think both sides would be working to agree on more and/or better measurements, an increasing number of high schools have concluded they should just withhold student rankings.

The schools have two justifications, both weak:

  • Withholding rankings will cause colleges to evaluate the “total child.” Ignoring the Orwellian aspects of withholding information in the name of the total child, the article states that most colleges end up compensating for the lack of information by either attempting to estimate the student’s rank or by adding emphasis to standardized test scores like the SAT. In other words, the colleges end up doing more of what the high schools are trying to prevent.
  • Withholding rankings will protect children from feeling bad. As a high school co-principal put it, “Only one person is happy when you hand out rank—the person who is No. 1.” I won’t argue the pros or cons of this point, because it’s a distraction: Withholding rankings from students is not the same as withholding rankings from colleges. The article notes that some high schools keep confidential rankings that are available to institutions that “absolutely” require them. If kids’ self esteem was the crux of the matter, high schools and colleges could no doubt expand the practice of conveying confidential rankings.

I don’t mean to imply that students should be evaluated only by numbers. Rather, in a world where college admissions are part qualitative and part quantitative, fixing the rankings issue should be about making the quantitative part better. Instead, high schools that withhold rankings undermine the quantitative part, in many cases hoping to make the numbers less important.

It’s not working, and students are the losers. Although a “distinct minority” of colleges are okay without rankings, the article suggests that most are not, citing the following data point near the end: “[A]n internal review showed that the admission rate at Vanderbilt was highest for students with a class rank, and lowest for those whose schools provided neither a rank nor general data about grades.”

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