Students at McFarland High School (MHS) will no longer be ranked academically after a decision from the counseling department to phase out class rank and weighted grades by the 2021-22 school year.
Representatives from the counseling office cited equity issues, a change in the college admissions process, and student mental health as the primary reasons behind the change.
According to School Counselor Beth Canfield, students of color are underrepresented in McFarland’s advanced placement (AP) courses, which are graded on a weighted scale.
Since weighted grades count more towards a student’s overall grade point average (GPA), this makes it easier for those in AP classes to move up in class rank, inadvertently putting students of color at a disadvantage, school counselors said.
“Our students of color are overrepresented in our GED program and our at-risk programs,” said Canfield. “We need to figure out what barriers are systemically in place [related to] who’s taking our AP classes.”
In October 2020, upon accepting a $1 million grant for racial equity initiatives, district officials indicated that while McFarland has consistently ranked high academically in comparison to other area districts, a closer look revealed that the district’s Black students were not meeting essential health and educational benchmarks when compared to white students.
Canfield said in addition to eradicating class rank and weighted grades, the department plans to ramp up its Excellence Achievement Maker Awards (BEAM) for students of color.
Jackie Guenther, also a school counselor with the McFarland School District, said another reason for the department’s decision to discontinue class rank is a change in the college admissions process.
Guenther said that while class rank used to be a top consideration for college admissions teams, it’s a trend that’s been on the decline for at least the last 10 years.
“[Colleges] used to have a formula of GPA, class rank, and ACT score, and that pretty much said whether you would get in [to college] or not,” Guenther explained. “Now, colleges totally changed their admissions process, which is great because it’s much better for kids, but now we need to update our [high school] systems to reflect that.”
According to Canfield, colleges across the nation are shifting away from a hyper-focus on class rank and GPA to look more holistically at students.
“School is important, your grades still matter, but that’s not the whole story,” said Canfield.
Both Canfield and Guenther confirmed that McFarland is one of the last remaining school districts in Dane County that still uses a class ranking system. Aside from McFarland, Sun Prairie is the only other district in the county that academically ranks its students.
On top of racial equity and a change in the college admissions process, Canfield said class rankings are taking a toll on students’ mental health.
“We have many students that come to us really upset about their rank and kind of feeling pitted against their classmates,” she said. “It’s just really disheartening to see and it doesn’t really fit with the whole mission that we’re trying to do at the school to have a more collectivist culture.”
Guenther agreed, saying she’s had several students come to her office and break down due to anxiety around their class rank.
Canfield and Guenther said plans to remove class ranks and the weighted grading system have already been approved by the leadership team at MHS and all McFarland AP teachers.
Beginning with the 2021-22 school year, MHS freshman, sophomores, and juniors will not be ranked or subject to weighted grades.