Class Rank in a Competency-Based High School

October 2, 2012 by

My school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, made the shift to a competency-based grading and reporting   system about three years ago. For those of you who have recently made the switch, as well as those of you who are planning one in the near future, I can tell you that once you go down the “competency road” it creates a chain reaction of other proposed changes – some you would anticipate, some you would not.For us, we weren’t too far down the path before the question came up of what we should do about class rank. Like most traditional high schools, we have always used a weighted grade point average (G.P.A.) to compute our class rank. We also have always engaged in traditions such as holding a banquet for students who were ranked in the top ten percent of the graduating class and naming a Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and a Class Essayist to the students who were ranked 1, 2, and 3 respectively in their graduating class. With the shift to a competency-based system, we hoped to remove the tradition of class rank. We found that this would prove harder to do than we originally thought.

The philosophy behind ranking students based on an index such as a GPA is flawed with a competency-based model. Imagine telling this to your incoming freshman class on the first day of school: “Dear students, we have a special tradition of holding a banquet to celebrate those of you who will graduate in the top ten percent of your class. No matter how hard each of you work to master both the school-wide and course-based competencies at our school, ninety percent of you will never have the option to attend this banquet.” This makes no sense, and it is even a little depressing. Furthermore, it just isn’t fair. Why not instead set a bar that you will use to distinguish an “honor graduate”, and any student who is able to reach (or exceed) that bar gets the distinction at graduation. From year to year, the number of honor graduates will change, but the standard never would. Every student would have the opportunity to be considered an honor graduate, provided they meet the requirements.

Last Spring, our school had the opportunity to make a joint presentation with Spaulding High School in Rochester, NH about competency-based grading to representatives from the admissions offices of every single private and public college and university in New Hampshire (only Dartmouth couldn’t make it that day). We hoped to walk away from this meeting with a blessing from the colleges to move away from the class ranking systems that we were currently using, but that was not the case. Although the admissions officers understood and appreciated our position about rank, they explained that it was still a necessary component of their admissions process. Without giving away all of their secrets, they told us that they keep data on how our kids who have enrolled at their school have done over the last ten years, and that information is used when determining which applicants to select from our school. Class rank is a common denominator that helps them compare our students against each other, not necessarily against other schools.

So, despite our best efforts, we continue to operate with a traditional class ranking system at Sanborn, although we do try to impress upon students and parents that class rank is only one piece to a portfolio of information that gets considered by colleges. Perhaps it will take this movement getting a little bit larger before higher education institutions will join us in recognizing that ranking students has no place in a competency-based system.

Check out the Competency-based Wiki for more information on Sanborn High School, including “Understanding Grade Point Average (GPA) and Class Rank: A Guide for Parents and Students.”

About the Author

Brian M. Stack is the principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire. Brian has worked for the Sanborn Regional School District for the last six years. He was hired in the summer of 2006 as the Assistant Principal / Director of Curriculum. Brian was named the runner-up for the New Hampshire Assistant Principal of the Year Award by the New Hampshire Association of School Principals in the spring of 2010. In the spring of 2012 he was named a “40 Under 40” leader in the community by the Eagle Tribune Publishing Company and the Merrimack Valley Business Magazine. In July of 2010, Brian was promoted to Principal after the retirement of Gail Sudduth. He is a strong advocate of personalized learning, competency-based grading and assessment, and high school redesign for the twenty-first century.

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  1. Comment by Justin Ballou 12:35 pm, October 3, 2012

    Great article!

    Do you think that it is possible to have a hybrid system? one that allows for a new algorithm that can identify degrees of competence that can be identified in the class level and be aggregated throughout the students tenure in high school?

    Does it have to be one way or another?

    Would be interested in your thoughts as an administrator!

  2. Comment by Gregg Sinner 2:38 pm, October 3, 2012

    “The philosophy behind ranking students based on an index such as a GPA is flawed with a competency-based model.” Strongly agree. Increasingly, people are questioning the value of such rankings as we struggle to create more equitable access to high quality learning for all students.

    Recommend contacting college counselors the Francis Parker Charter School ( and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy ( for how they deal with this issue. Neither of these long-standing public schools use rank in class (Parker uses narrative achievement reporting with conversion to grades); IMSA uses letter grades + mentorship performance). Both have been successfully communicating with colleges admissions people over time (including Dartmouth College and other highly selective colleges) to gain admission for their graduates w/o rank-in-class..

    The rank-in-class school culture does not foster equity of access to learning opportunity nor guarantee deep learning, and should be a topic for dialog, especially between NH school districts and colleges.

  3. Comment by Brian Stack 6:03 pm, October 3, 2012

    Hi justin, I hadn’t thought about a hybrid system, but I am sure at some point that is the direction we will have to go…..the problem we have is that it isn’t only colleges that want to see it, local and national scholarships do too…

  4. Comment by Justin Ballou 2:04 pm, October 4, 2012

    “The rank-in-class school culture does not foster equity of access to learning opportunity nor guarantee deep learning, and should be a topic for dialog, especially between NH school districts and colleges.”

    I agree… and am interested in looking at ways in which we can still assess student knowledge and skill-sets on a spectrum rather than an absolute!

    Possibly do away with the ranking of best to worst, (for lack of better terms…) and take a snapshot of their capabilities in the schools competencies on a sliding scale.

    Would love to get the dialogue going with folks that are interested!

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