Overhaul The Class Rank System at Plano ISD

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Dear Plano ISD Students, Teachers, Parents, and the Board of Trustees,

From December 2015 to April 2017, a Plano ISD Task Force was created in order to study the impacts of class rank and how it has impacted students. After this thorough investigation, it made these recommendations:

  1. Identify (but do not rank) the Top 10% of graduates, as required by law.
  2. Identify and rank valedictorian and salutatorian.
  3. Implement a Latin System for recognizing students who reach a standard of excellence, to include summa cum laude (“with highest honor”), magna cum laude (“with great honor”), and cum laude (“with honor”) graduates.
  4. Begin the identification of Top 10% in the 11th and 12th grades, when students converge at their respective senior high school campus.
  5. Report GPA to students at the end of each semester beginning in a student’s 9th grade year.
  6. For the junior and senior class at each senior high school, at the end of each semester, publish the GPA reflecting the lowest position in the top 10%.

Despite clear indications that class rank was creating an environment that the Task Force concluded as detrimental (e.g. reducing student acceptance rates at highly competitive colleges, creating inappropriate stress/competitive practices, and adversely skewing student class choices), the district elected to defer a decision to scrap class rank for at least another year.

Such delay, unfortunately, has caused the class rank debate to have largely been forgotten. Although the Board of Trustees has created a Task Force in order to study weighted GPA, no action on class rank has been taken on any school but the Plano Academy School (which recently saw a change in how weighted GPA in middle school was calculated and saw the removal of class rank to the fullest extent of the law). This is problematic mainly because an overhaul of the weighted GPA system would simply just change the courses that students would take to maximize their GPA (i.e. students would still take as many courses weighted 5.0 as they could under the new system as well), while still not solving any of the core problems that a class rank system has created.

On matters on class rank, Plano ISD cannot resort to a strategy of “delay, delay, delay.” Such action only amplifies the pernicious impacts class rank has had on the PISD community, and potentially keeps them indefinitely. In government, whether it be at the special district or national level, the best way to ensure that a policy is never implemented is by forever delaying it until the governed has given up or stopped caring for the matter. That cannot be allowed to happen here.

Ultimately, the AllEqual Organization and the signatories of this petition strongly believe that the harms of the class rank system outweigh the benefits. Here are some of the reasons why.

First, school culture has been adversely affected by the obsession on class rank.  “Culture”, however, is a catch-all term, so it’s important to go into the specifics.

Rank's direct effect upon school culture is that it creates an overly competitive environment. By definition, a rank simply tells you how many students have a higher GPA than you do. As a result, improving class rank requires you to beat others, thereby creating competition. Now, no one’s saying that competition is at its core unwanted, but as the obsession of rank becomes worse, competition becomes more cutthroat, thereby creating a larger obsession of rank (in essence, a positive feedback loop that only intensifies the harmful effects of rank).

Here is why this is a problem. A focus on competition inherently takes away from the collaborative environment PISD seeks to create. After all, no incentive exists for collaboration. This is problematic because the existence of class rank dissuades students from sharing notes or helping each other so as to improve their class standing at the expense of others. That ultimately decreases student learning and their experience with working with others, leading to the weakening of a critical skill that forms the basis of most post-collegiate job opportunities. We learn from and with each other, and a class rank system simply takes away that opportunity.

Moreover, the existence of a class rank system creates a focus on hierarchy for those who strongly value their class rank. For example, one group of students attempted to divide their peers based upon their projected ranks into “peninsulares”, “creoles”, “mestizos”, and so forth. While the usage of a race-based Spanish class system in the 1500s might be a somewhat extreme example, the trend still holds. Another notable example would be a group of students who infamously created a Google document creating a rank chart listing everyone's name, GPA, and even arrogantly began the ridiculous task of attempting to figure out "projected GPAs." The existence of class rank effectively creates a system in which high-ranked students, buoyed by their rank in a culture that values it immensely, increasingly become elitist and become less willing to converse or value the opinions of those who are “lower-ranked.” Although this is by no means the norm, it exists in enough cases that it is most definitely a problem. Consequently, those with lower ranks who place importance upon the class rank system feel increasingly demoralized, thereby weakening their own performance. Over time, the cycle only gets worse, as decreased performance ends up weakening class rank further and intensifying dissatisfaction. According to the College Board, schools that are most likely to remove class rank are those which are heavily competitive and have many talented students that are below the top 10%. That is most definitely the case here, with Plano ISD being one of the most talented school districts in practically every area in the country.

It’s also worth taking a look at class choices. The existence of class rank and the intensification of an overly competitive atmosphere has caused students to take more and more demanding schedules. Although this looks great in theory as students are supposedly learning more and more, the harms are innumerable. First, it decimates sleep schedules. Plano high schools are well known for the sleep deprivation students suffer from, with students getting as low as 3-5 hours of sleep not at all uncommon to hear about. This is dangerously unhealthy behavior, causing adverse impacts such as chronic fatigue, impaired cognitive thinking, increased risk for health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes, depression, increased aging, decreased growth, and weight gain. And this problem is only getting worse. Last year, we saw the beginning of sophomores taking AP Science classes as the senior high level, only 3-4 years after it even became possible for sophomores to take AP Calculus BC. Today, among our sample of sophomores, students are taking as many as 4-6 AP classes, with workload that is quite difficult to handle effectively (especially when factoring extracurriculars and work). It gets worse. Because these more demanding schedules force students to cram even more information, it reduces retention rates. After all, the only incentive the rank system provides is to do well on the tests and exam (after that, it doesn’t matter). To get a glance at this, just ask how much our current juniors and seniors still remember material from AP Human Geography or Honors World Geography (not much). But increased cramming only worsens this effect, especially with the upper limit sleep deprivation creates. We’re actually learning less as a result of intensified competition arising from class rank. Finally, the emphasis on taking as many AP and Honors classes as possible blocks students from taking lower-GPA courses that might provide new experiences. Courses like Gateway to Technology, Language I, Engineering Principles, Journalism, and the like are all deprived of interest by those who play the rank race. That deprives these students of experiences that might help them at the collegiate and post-collegiate level, and deprives many extracurricular activities of talented, passionate students.

Second, the class rank system is detrimental to PISD’s interests because it intensifies academic dishonesty. Now, this isn’t a PISD-only problem, as 60-70% of high school students throughout the country have reported cheating. But it’s important that we as a school district work to combat it. Quite honestly, the current state of cheating is abominable. Because of the tireless work of various whistleblowers and Plano ISD's newly hired private investigator, we have learned that this problem is not just limited to the verbal “feeding” (exchange) of answers, peeking on others’ tests, or copying others’ work, but also memorization of entire online test banks (which are technically illegal to use), black markets of whole tests, break-ins, camera pen usage, use of hardware keyloggers, documents with entire tests, and much more. Yet no one party can solve, or make significant strides toward solving, alone. The truth is the existing rank system only perpetuates this situation since the hefty competition forces others to stay afloat. If we have one person who is using these tactics aggressively to better themselves, others are pushed into doing the same to compete under the zero-sum game rank system, effectively intensifying cheating to the point our classrooms approach the living embodiment of William Golding's The Lord of the Flies. Additionally, a focus on rank has effectively caused students to commit fraud, taking advantage of the relative ease of breaking into PISD servers to obtain GPA, rank, and entire transcripts. We must recognize the effect of rank in creating this disintegration of morals, as all of these are inextricably tied to class rank’s existence in Plano ISD.

Third, it causes an exodus of talent from Plano ISD. Many students at the 9-10 level in Plano ISD end up leaving Plano ISD schools for either the Texas Academy of Math and Science or Frisco because they are concerned that their ranks might hurt them in college admissions, to get scholarships, etc. This is a very legitimate concern, especially with the extensive competition at Plano ISD resulting in even high-grade earning students having relatively low ranks. Moreover,  parents who are dissatisfied with the rank-obsessed culture within Plano ISD are motivated to enroll their students elsewhere, such as schools like St. Mark's and John Paul II. This student flight is detrimental for the district because while it costs little to none to provide an education to these children, Plano ISD loses roughly $7,000 for each student that ends up leaving. By perpetuating the rank system, PISD is effectively losing funding that can be used to better the education of all the district’s students. After warning for years about the effects of budget cuts in the post-Recession era (and having the ninth largest debt load of Texas school districts), it’s best Plano ISD attempts to get all the funding that they can get.

Fourth, removing ranks helps college acceptances. In one specific case study in the Eanes school district, Westlake High School found that 38 percent more students were accepted into the University of Texas at Austin and 49 percent more students to Texas A&M University the first year that rank was removed. As one of a high school's main roles is to help students get into the best college they can, it's clear that Plano ISD should do the same.

Fifth, the system simply reflects disparities within students' economic opportunities. Heavy gamesmanship of the rank system (for example, a sizable group of 7th and 8th graders take 3 semesters of Spanish I or French I, drop the 4th semester, hire a private tutor, and then use that to pass the CBE so it doesn't count toward their GPA) is only possible if students have the resources to do so. That can require heavy investment into eSchool (especially for classes like Physics, PE, and Health), costing as much as $340 per semester. Many families simply cannot afford this type of spending to assist their students' education, thus forcing lower-income students to the bottom of the rank ladder, regardless of intelligence (in many cases, class choices can determine rank far better than academic ability can). Throughout world history, education has been considered to be the greatest agent of social mobility. With a rank system, however, that simply ceases to be the case.


Finally, let's focus upon the pro-rank case. Those in support of the status quo maintain that rank is necessary in order to motivate students to try their best. However, that's just not true - in private schools like Philips Exeter, St. Mark's, Hockaday, Harker, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul II, and Philips Andover (all of which don't rank), the lack of a ranking system has not stopped students from trying their very best in school. Universities and colleges don't have a ranking system, yet students there are still motivated to study and work hard. The workplace does not need a ranking system by income, wealth, productivity, and the like to make people work hard in their jobs. Rank is not the only motivator in a student's life - that type of thinking is as dangerous as the rationales of students who judge their peers solely by the number that is on the bottom right of their transcript. The rank system's problem is that its existence and importance within Plano ISD culture causes students to obsess too much over it. Yet despite the value students provide it, a focus on rank does not provide any meaningful skills for students. It doesn't teach students to be intelligent (many intelligent students have low ranks simply because they took too difficult/too low-weighted classes, didn't cheat, etc.), it doesn't help students to improve their social skills (in fact, it does the opposite), it doesn't provide students leadership training, or pretty much any skill that's needed for collegiate and career success.

Don't just take it from us, however. Alfie Kohn explains in far more detail in his book "The Myth of the Spoiled Child" the detriments of a class rank system, excerpts of which are published here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/13/the-case-for-abolishing-class-rank/?utm_term=.5b3098fd3ae8.

As a result, the AllEqual Organization courteously requests the Plano ISD Board of Trustees to implement the following (the specific EIC-LOCAL revisions are posted on https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dY5U1pWrFF46OqS5LdJ6nYzzBiYAcPed/view?usp=sharing.

  1. Remove the class rank system and implement the following recommendations for the Class of 2022 onwards:
  2. Report GPA to students at the end of each semester beginning in a student’s 9th grade year.
  3. For the junior and senior class at each senior high school, at the end of each semester, publish the GPA reflecting the lowest position in those who would normally qualify for automatic admission to the University of Texas and the top 10%.
  4. Implement a Latin System for recognizing students who reach a standard of excellence, to include summa cum laude (“with highest honor”), magna cum laude (“with great honor”), and cum laude (“with honor”) graduates. The cutoffs for each level, in weighted GPA, will be 4.4, 4.0, and 3.6, respectively.

To those reading this petition, please sign if you support the ideals espoused above. Even if you don’t agree, we hope that you will voice your opposition on this petition as well so that this proposal can be improved to reflect the interests of the district. Either way, change is necessary, and needs to come immediately.

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