Sunday, March 12, 2006

Class Rank: It hurts.

RE: Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges (in The New York Times, March 5, 2006)

This article, featuring several pompous college admissions officers, was followed up by the publication of five letters to the editor -- including my own.

Do Class Rankings Help or Hurt? (5 Letters)

Two of the other letter writers, one a high-school teacher, were emphatically in agreement with my POV (NO to ranking). One, a college dean, offered an apologetic defense. And one, a certain Kevin Dayton of Roseville, California, was himself a valedictorian and has "no doubts and no regrets that the ranking helped distinguish me from 'the total child' of other applicants."

Interestingly, I believe I stood face to face with Mr. Dayton, on opposing sides at a political rally almost fifteen years ago (unbeknowst to Mr. Dayton). Here's how that works out:

First, how did I figure this out? Google, of course. Intensely curious about Mr. Dayton because of his in-your-face response on the class rank issue, I succeeded in unearthing that he is a "Fellow" of the "Pacific Research Institute" (read, the Pacific Right-Wing Propaganda Mill) of Sansome Street in San Francisco. In fact, even though his regular employment is as Vice President of Government Relations for the Golden Gate Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, he is "PRI's" Senior Fellow in Labor Union Studies (!!).

Still not satisfied, I unearthed Mr. Dayton's bio on the PRI site, which pegged him as a Yale grad, placing him in Connecticut, my former home state. Then, what do I read but that, during 1992-94, he was Legislative Assistant to Republican Congressman Gary Franks of Connecticut.

What's the significance of this? In 1992, I was quite active in the campaign against Franks. So active, that one Saturday in my home town of Wilton, I showed up at a Franks rally in the local supermarket parking lot, ostensibly to campaign for an opposing candidate, but really much more intent on being a spoiler for the Franks rally (much as I used to sit on home plate in our backyard baseball games when I didn't get my way).

I had been asked by my candidate to bring my camcorder, and, having filmed our candidate's counter-rally, parading round the parking lot, I found myself finished with my task, still holding my campaign sign, and directly opposite Gary Franks, who was propounding to the locals. I still had my camcorder, and I was standing about five feet from Franks, so I turned it on him, and he stared back into the lens, not knowing what to make of it. (An early instance of a private citizen using video to document the doings of the other side?)

Anyway, Franks was standing next to an aide, and -- this is where my memory is just not going to help me, for I have no mental picture of Franks' assistant -- couldn't that just possibly have been the Connecticut-based Dayton, who went on to become Franks' legislative assistant?

Such a satisfying search result (for me, anyway): once a jerk (working for Franks), always a jerk (sticking his class rank in our faces). And doubly confirmed by his cushy jobs: getting paid both by contractors and to opine on "Labor Union Studies."

And now, just in case The Times takes away the link (above), here's the text of my letter (for the text of the article, which The Times has already archived, you're going to have try your library... or your library's database... or buy it from Times "Select"):

To the Editor:

The demand by parents and high schools to look at the "total child" seems legitimate; colleges are looking at class rank because they are relying on grade point average, which seems illegitimate.

Comparing grades across schools is too fraught with pitfalls to be rescued by the addition of class rank. College admissions personnel, extending even to the Ivy League, behave like a secret society; they might as well be interpreting animal entrails to decide who shall walk their hallowed halls.

That they behave this way is understandable; they lack the resources necessary to assess the totality of their applicants' qualifications.

But the answer is not to devote more resources to the admissions process; the answer is to open up higher education to all who truly have the ambition for it.

Stop concentrating resources in elite institutions that (with questionable accuracy) award admission to those whom they deem deserving.

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Me., March 5, 2006


Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Small Colleges, Short of Men, Embrace Football (NY Times 07/10/06)

After Tamar Lewin’s serious attempt at probing the college gender gap, I was confounded by Bill Pennington’s thin reasoning. The caption “ Shenandoah University 's football team has helped narrow the gender gap on campus” is simply false. A review of both graphics reveals female enrollment on an upward trend after the football startup, and male enrollment flattening out after a one-time boost roughly equal to the 100 “student” athletes on the new squad.

But then I clicked on Pennington’s bio: a sports writer! You should decide what your business is with this series. Are you exploring our corrupt colleges – including the Ivy League – that block highly qualified, admitted students by chivvying on their aid packages even while opening doors for less qualified students whom the coach is recruiting, or are you just showcasing your writers, whether they be serious students of American education or propagandizing sports enthusiasts?

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Maine

August 31, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger BoxHill said...

Class rank does mean something: in my experience, being a valedictorian is evidence that the person was preoccupied with getting good grades, sometimes to the detriment of intellectual excellence and exploration. (One valedictorian of my acquaintance, a notorious grind, dropped some more interesting honors courses so that she could be sure to maintain her A average.)

But class rank becomes completely meaningless when grades aren't weighted. Our high school doesn't weight grades. An A in AP Chemistry counts exactly the same as an A in a remedial math course for freshmen. A couple of years ago, the valedictorian at our high school had never taken a SINGLE honors class. (Tell me, when will someone win the Scholar/Athlete award without ever competing on a varsity team? You're right: when hell freezes over.)

September 06, 2006 2:53 AM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

RE: "A Little Learning Is an Expensive Thing" by Dr. William Chace, Wesleyan College President (Ret.)

Dr. Chace deserves credit for bringing us a refreshing dose of candor (albeit in hindsight), but he fails to reflect on the implications of his thesis that rapidly spiraling college costs are demand-driven. That's a shame, because what's implied is cause for celebration. Education is in demand and its price is being bid up relative to other goods and services. If that fact could be kept firmly in the public mind, then it might act as a shield against taxpayer movements, might even nurture the public will to increase support for educational institutions.

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Maine

September 10, 2006 8:19 AM  
Blogger Jim H said...

Sorry, Rick, but I think you are naive in assuming that increasing college costs are a sign of an admirable realization that education is a good.

Let me state my cynical view of at least one aspect of the cost increase phenemenon.

Colleges are simply acting more like cereal companies, or consumer goods companies in general. They are CREATING a demand that does not necessarily reflect the true interests or desires of the purchasers, any more than childres would be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs if General Mills wasn't bombarding 8 year olds with advertisements on the Cartoon Network.

Why? Because it allows the administrators to pay themselves more money and benefits, like interest-free million dollar loans for second homes (did anybody say Cal?). The increased demand increases their prestige. And, ultimately, lets them maximize the endowment and the cool new buildings on campus.

Part of the game is to create the appearance of exclusivity, which means you want to reject as many applicants as possible, but maximize your yield (i.e., the percentage who accept offers of admission). The perfect result would be something like 10% of applicants are accepted, and 80% of those accepted enroll. So now, instead of applying to 3 colleges (as I did), seniors apply to 10 or 15.

Think my cynicism is ill-founded? See How Lowering the Bar
Helps Colleges Prosper
. (You may need to have access to the Journal online to view this article.) I might have to buy that book.

The answer I reach is 180 degrees from what is proposed in the original post. Colleges should admit, first and foremost, on the basis of potential academic achievement. And while, as Rick probably says frequently, past performance is not guarantee of future results, it's usually a good predictor.

Of course, there are exceptions and I have no problem with colleges looking for ways to find those past underachievers who may blossom in college. But the focus should be on finding those people, not admitting everybody. I plead guilty to being an academic elitist.

And a final comment on class rank: I can't imagine how anybody can be a valedictorian without taking challenging courses. I know one young fellow quite well, who has a senior year that reads AP Chem, AP History, AP English, Honors Physics (school has no AP), AP Computer Science. An "A" in those courses is worth more than 4. The valedictorian is likely to have something like a 4.4 average.

In addition, many schools--most of the ones we've visited in the last 9 months--look at whether the applicant has stretched herself in high school. A safe 4.0 may well not get in, while a 3.6 full of evidence of curiosity and thirst for knowledge may.

So both class rank and the nature of the studies underlying the class rank are legitimate measures in my book.

September 10, 2006 4:49 PM  

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