Pulling rank in high schools

An emotional debate over who deserves to be valedictorian is gripping a Cherokee County high school.

The presumptive Etowah High valedictorian, a four-year student at the school, had her top slot usurped by a private school student from the area who never attended the school, but enrolled on paper as a criterion for a dual-enrollment program at a public college.

Among the points being debated: Cherokee assigns a 100 for any college “A” but has an exact numerical grade for students in its high school classes. Many people are questioning whether such polices are fair to high school students.

To me, there is a larger question yet to be examined. Given the ranges of classes that high school students can now take — from virtual, to college, to Advanced Placement, to self-directed — are class rankings a hopeless mire?

Should we just stop ranking students, something that many private schools have already given up?

Over the years, I’ve received about a dozen calls from parents upset over how their schools determine valedictorian. Most calls were about decisions to stop weighting honors courses, which sometimes meant a child was losing the top spot to a classmate who didn’t carry as demanding a course load, at least according to the unhappy parent.

Among the parents’ points: Shouldn’t calculus count more than art history? Why do some schools add points for honor classes and others not?

And I have heard from a few students who lamented policy changes that they said propelled classmates who took easier courses ahead of them in the class rankings.

In the Cherokee dispute over the Etowah valedictorian, it again comes down to a district policy. Cherokee policy says a dually enrolled student is eligible to be valedictorian.

So, I am baffled why anyone is ascribing motives or wrongdoing to either student. They are blameless. They did exactly what we want all students to do — work hard and excel. One did so at the public high school, the other at a private school and then a state university.

Nor do I blame the private school parents who enrolled their daughter at Etowah to take advantage of a University of West Georgia program.

If the parents live in the county, they’re paying taxes for Etowah and have the right to enroll their child there, for whatever purpose.

I don’t see that what they did is unethical. They wanted the best for their daughter, and it wasn’t at anyone else’s expense. They surely didn’t foresee this valedictorian conflict.

No parent would willingly walk into this quagmire and expose their child to so much hostility that the West Georgia president spoke out in defense of the dual-enrolled student.

President Beheruz N. Sethna urged all sides in this dilemma to express their opinions “with calmness and civility.”

The problem is that the valedictorian policy in Cherokee — and most places — speaks to students who are enrolled in the school rather than who attend, a distinction that looms larger in this new era of virtual classes and early college options.

One solution to showdowns over who’s first in the class is to drop class rankings, which has been done by private schools around the country and is now occurring in public schools in upper middle-class areas.

The abandonment of rankings began in high-achieving schools where students with 3.8 averages were ending up with low class rankings that hurt them in the college admissions process.

Top high schools contend that their students lost ground in admissions office comparisons with students from less-competitive high schools where snagging a top 10 percent berth was not as difficult.

Without a class ranking on a student’s transcript, the high schools maintain that colleges have to dig deeper in their evaluations, drilling down to the student’s test scores, the rigor of their classes, recommendations and essays.

Schools that have eliminated ranking say it has cut down on the arms race for the top slots and alleviated student stress.

Removing class rankings also encourages students to take tougher courses where they may risk a “B” instead of choosing the guaranteed “A” they could have earned in a less-demanding class.