What to do about Deciles?

After 12 years in UCFSD, ~95% of UHS graduates will continue their education at a college or university.  Selecting the right college is an important decision, and many students seek admission at some of the most competitive institutions in the country.

For many of our parents, admission to the best college is the prize for which sacrifices have been made, by both the student and the family.   It can carry tremendous emotional significance.  It often feels like the quality of child’s future opportunities depend on that admissions decision.  And let’s face it …. Competition for those slots is high.    As parents, we want our children to have every possible advantage in that competition.

A year ago, one of our parents observed that one of our policies might actually be creating a disadvantage for our students.   The culprit?  Our decile ranking policy.

The Games Colleges Play

One of the under-appreciated facts about college admissions is that the admissions process is not designed to find and admit the most qualified applicants.   Certainly that is an objective.   But the process is also designed to raise the school’s position in the USNews ranking of colleges and universities.  As schools respond to this powerful incentive, students are advantaged or disadvantaged by their statistical profile.  And those that don’t contribute toward raising the ranking will be less attractive applicants than those who do.

(To better appreciate the influence of the USNews Rankings, please see here,  here, here, and here.)

Higher rankings bring colleges many benefits.  These include more highly qualified future applicants, especially full-pay students who are not seeking financial aid.  For public colleges and universities, higher rankings also seem to drive increased funding from legislatures.  And higher rankings also elicit increased donations from proud alumni.

As result, the rankings can become an end in themselves.   (See an example here)   Given the incentives, it is not hard to understand why.

“Selectivity” is one of the metrics that influences USNews rankings.  One indicator of selectivity is the percent of admitted students who are in the top 10% of their high school graduating class.  This metric shows (so the theory goes) how effectively the school attracts the most qualified applicants.  And this is the metric that can disadvantage some our UHS students.

How does this disadvantage occur?  At UHS, we have many students who are good academic performers.  And 95% will go on to college.  But only the absolute best academic performers will make it into the top 10% of the class.  As a result, an ‘average student’ at UHS might be equivalent to a student in the top 10% or 20% at other less competitive school districts.

So the ‘achievement bar’ for entry into the top decile at UHS is high — higher than most other schools.   But a USNews-maximizing college might notice that smart and capable UHS grad is not in the top 10%.  And rather than accepting our qualified student, the college might instead offer admission to an equivalent student, who is in the top ten percent, albeit at a lower-performing district.

Or, the college may prefer to take an equally qualified applicant from a school that doesn’t report rankings at all. Students without decile ranking neither help not hurt the college’s US News rank. So a college is better off accepting an unranked student than a ranked UHS grad who is ranked outside the top decile.

The Response of High-Performing High Schools

We are not the only district that faces this situation.  Private college preparatory schools, and other high-performing school districts across the U.S. face similar hurdles.  And many have a policy that they believe helps their students:  they simply do not report decile rankings to colleges.

Some high schools, including many of the elite boarding schools in New England (for example, Philipps Exeter Academy) have never reported class rank.  Many other high performing schools have done away with class ranks only in the last 10-20 years.

In taking this step, schools also must also make a second decision:  how much contextual information to provide about the graduating class.   Some districts (like Lower Merion, PA) choose to report student GPAs and course grades (transcript), providing no other information on the distribution of GPAs among students (e.g. range of GPAs, median GPA).  Other districts choose to provide a few additional data points to anchor the class profile, like the highest and median GPAs.  Still others go further and provide a full grade distribution, like GPA quartiles or % of students within select GPA bands (like Great Valley, PA).

According to a 2007 report, 92% of high schools provide either numeric rank, percentile rank, or grade distribution.   Or put another way, only 8% of high schools have gone the route of completely doing away with class rank information.

What is the reaction of admissions departments?  Class rank has become less and less important to admissions departments.  In 2013, only 15% of admissions departments attached “considerable importance” to class rank, down from 33% in 2003 .  (In contrast, grades in college prep are important to 82% of colleges).  Large, public, moderately selective colleges tend to place more emphasis on class rank than smaller, private, less selective colleges.  (Source:  here)

The Decision Before Us

So what should Unionville Chadds Ford School District do?

Here is a summary note from the administration (link) explaining the class rank study and providing the committee’s recommendation.  In the past few weeks the district has been receiving lots of feedback, and I have also gone back and re-read the whole decile study.  Based on the feedback I have heard, and the research I have done, here is my current point of view.

I believe that our current policy to calculate and report student deciles is harmful to a certain segment of our UHS students … those outside the top 10%.  This is particularly true for those seeking admission to larger, moderately selectively, public colleges and universities.

How much will such a change help?  It is hard to say, but many other top-shelf private high schools and top districts in Pennsylvania have already made this change.   And some admissions officers seem to be (discreetly) suggesting that we do the same.  If we can help a large segment of our students by making this change, then we ought to do it.

That being said, before making this change, we need to make sure there are no unintended consequences.

If there is benefit to the bottom 90% of dropping the decile rankings, it is quite obvious that there must be some detriment to the top 10%.  How much will it hurt?   It is hard to say, but it must be a non-zero amount.  And we have heard from many of our parents that they believe it will harm their top decile students.  I think we should take this concern seriously.

The Solution I Think We Need

It is important to me that we search for a solution that benefits all UHS students.  I don’t think we have yet found that solution, mostly because we haven’t been looking for it.  Our class rank study group did exactly the job it was asked to do:   examine our decile ranking policy and tell us if we should keep reporting deciles to colleges, or not.   Their answer, which I agree with, is that we should drop decile rankings.

Now what we need to do is look at implementation options:

  1. What should be done, if anything, to protect the achievements of those who worked hard under the decile system? Should we remove this credential of achievement this year, or should we phase it in?  Should we ‘grandfather’  current UHS students that have been operating under the decile system already?
  2. Is it a sensible option for decile reporting to be at the students’ option? Can this provide admission benefits to all students, or does it defeat the purpose of removing decile reporting?
  3. How much additional GPA banding information should we provide in our UHS school profile? How much is enough?  How much is too much and counter-productive?
  4. What else should we do, if anything, to recognize our top performers? Over half of US high-schools recognize groups of graduating students based on percentile rankings.  For example, should we recognize graduates with the top 5% GPAs as “high honors”?

We are on the path to making a positive change.  I am grateful that this issue was brought forward, and for the committee’s excellent work.   We need to finish the work, and find a solution that works for all students, and preserves the high standards that have served UHS so well.  I believe that such a solution is very much in reach.