First Person

Commentary: Class rank is an antiquated practice that pits student against student

“I heard he’s not number one anymore.”

My ears perk up as I hear the familiar discussion about class rank.

“Are you sure?” the other student asks excitedly. His level of enthusiasm is similar to when school lets out for the summer.

But this excitement isn’t concerning an A on a math test, or a sports team win. The excitement is in response to the realization that someone’s class rank dropped. It’s just a number, and someone else’s for that matter, but somehow it means this much.

East ranks its students. This makes sense at first: teachers, administrators, and colleges alike should have a general understanding of where a certain student falls academically. However, across the nation, more and more schools are ceasing to release their students’ class ranks because of the competitive environment it fosters among students and the subjectivity of ranking academic excellence.

They are beginning to realize that class rank is an inaccurate measure of student success and accomplishment, and doesn’t always represent the most hard-working individuals.

Although there is a certain element of competition in every high school, class rank makes competition a numerical goal that the 600 or so students in a given grade strive for. The number of times I have been asked, “What’s your class rank?” is not only crazy, but it also cheapens the idea of love of learning. It leads to students actively hoping for their peers to falter academically so that their own class rank will improve.

Class rank is important, but it should not encourage students to wish for their peers’ failure.

This competition, and the obsession with improving one’s class rank, causes students to take classes simply for the honors credit required to be in the top 10. The amazing thing about East is that it offers so many opportunities to students that encourage passion. This becomes difficult to sustain with the focus on class rank.

I’ve taken newspaper and choir for all my years at East, and these classes have been the cornerstones of my high school experience. Do I get honors credit? No, and my class rank suffers because of my non-honors classes, but I wouldn’t give these two classes up for anything.

When I first applied to join the newspaper at the end of my freshman year, I was advised not to take the class because my class rank would drop. It is unfair that these classes have proved themselves so incredibly beneficial to my growth as a person, and as a student, but in terms of class rank, taking them means I am valued less than many of my peers.

I’ve done more work by far for newspaper than most of my other classes. The real difference is that I love journalism. It’s not a class I’m taking for the sake of AP credit, but a class I’m taking for the pursuit of learning.

The idea of someone with an affinity for journalism choosing not to take the class for the sole reason of class rank saddens me, but it’s a reality here at East.

Really, class rank limits the horizons and potential of all East students, telling them that their accomplishments are only significant if they add up numerically.

The main problem with class rank is how significant it has gotten to be at East. The yearbook even has a page dedicated to the 10 top-ranked seniors in the school. I believe that academic excellence should always be recognized, and the top 10 have obviously worked extremely hard in high school, but what about the 30 other students in the grade with straight A’s? Their academic excellence is somehow deemed less significant than that of the top 10.

The short answer is that the top 10 have taken more honors and AP classes. But this isn’t the whole story. East students are amazingly eclectic.

We are a school that exhibits every passion, every pursuit, and essentially every talent within each student. We are a school that embodies what it means to be passionate about something. Our school should not pressure students to fit a mold so that they are valued more than others.

What would encourage and highlight the accomplishments of East students?  How about a page in the yearbook devoted to students who have done amazing things, not only with regard to school, but also independent of school.

The point of class rank is to see where students fall academically; to see their strengths and weakness laid out on a piece of white paper. The truth of the matter is that strengths and weaknesses of any student go far beyond a single sheet of paper. The individual accomplishments of each student go far beyond 100 pieces of paper, and they certainly go beyond class rank.

The truth is that class rank is an antiquated practice that pits student against student, and is being discredited by universities and other high schools across the nation. These institutions are realizing that academic excellence and achievement are not things that can be measured by a ranking system.

The message East is giving us is that education is a series of numbers, and we have to fit the mold of those numbers. We need to break the mold.

This First Person post was originally published in The Spotlight, East High School’s student-produced newspaper.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.