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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
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A New Admissions Game
Class rankings replace affirmative action

Michael W. Kirst  
By Michael W. Kirst

THE END OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION for competitive admission to universities has created a search for new admissions criteria that will enhance equity and access.

Many universities have included new concepts such as persistence, overcoming handicaps, first in family to attend a university, and attending a high school that has sent few pupils to any college or university. But the most visible solution has been to automatically accept students ranked at the top of their class, regardless of the high schools they have attended or the courses they have taken.

Public universities in Texas now admit the top ten percent of each graduating class and, beginning next fall, Florida universities will accept the top 20 percent. The University of California admits the top four percent to one of the eight general campuses in its system but specifies the courses that must be taken.

The Pennsylvania state university system is considering a proposal to automatically admit the top 15 percent from each public high school graduating class.

While the impact upon minority enrollment from these policies is unclear, they should help to increase both geographic representation and the numbers of students from high schools with historically low university enrollment rates.

Defining the top of the class appears to be straightforward, but it has proven to be more complex and elusive than originally thought. This new admissions game will produce winners and losers, as well as students, parents and school districts who learn how to play the game better. What counts is not merely good grades, but better grades than one's peers.

A survey of 2,200 high schools by Patricia Riordan, dean of admissions at George Mason University, concluded that some schools give extra weight to certain courses but others do not. The policies run the gamut, and inequities are created. For example, for decades Illinois has been using high school class rank (HSCR) as one-half of an admissions index, with ACT scores for the other half. But Illinois universities and the Illinois Board of Higher Education have never specified how high schools should compute class rank.

Consequently, high schools use a variety of techniques and weighting systems to determine HSCR. High schools include different courses in their calculations -- some schools count college prep courses for the most part, while others include electives and vocational classes. Some types of courses are more heavily weighted but some schools compute HSCR in several ways and then report the ranking that provides local students with the best chance of being admitted.

This system does not provide valid and reliable comparisons of HSCR for university admission. At the University of Illinois, for example, disputes about class rank have led to the creation of a group of special review schools, mostly in suburban Chicago. If freshman grades from these schools are high enough, their class rankings are adjusted upward compared to the rest of the state. Since most high schools use the same class rank system for many years, Illinois has worked out most of the problems with its criteria through encouraging high schools to continue to use the same ranking system (whatever it may be) for many years. But the Illinois experiences demonstrate the complexity of the issue.

All public universities in Texas now accept the top ten percent from each of the state's high schools but there are no course requirements. Non-academic electives and vocational courses can be crucial factors in helping students reach the top ten percent more easily, but more difficult courses might be more appropriate for admissions purposes.

It will be interesting to follow Texas university grades and graduation rates for students with different course preparation patterns. Texas officials need to monitor whether school districts are adjusting class rank to give their students an advantage at selective institutions like the Texas A&M flagship campus in College Station and the University of Texas at Austin.

If universities do not think HSCR is valid and reliable, they may revert to placing more emphasis on ACT and SAT scores. The top-ten-percent policy in Texas could produce classes of freshmen who have taken an extremely wide range of courses, but a recent U.S. Department of Education study stresses that specific course-taking patterns in high school lead to higher college graduation rates. This study finds that taking specific courses, especially one math course beyond Algebra II, is crucial to university graduation. The goal, after all, should be to graduate students, not simply to admit them.

Florida's top-20-percent calculation is left to each district or high school to determine, but all students in the top 20 percent must complete 19 college prep courses including three units of math (Algebra I or higher), three units of science (two lab), and two units of foreign language. Some Florida minority groups are concerned that the language requirement will keep many minority students out of the top 20 percent because community colleges do not emphasize language preparation.

The fact that districts use differing methods for calculating class rank will lead to significant differences in determining which students are considered to be part of the top 20 percent, especially when electives, honors and Advanced Placement courses are given extra weight.

State supporters of the top-20-percent policy contend more minorities who attend inner-city or rural high schools with lower grade point averages now will be eligible for university admission without needing to take the SAT. But some local educators predict non-minority students from high-grade-point-average schools may transfer to these low grade point average high schools in order to be in the top 20 percent.

The University of California has chosen a different and better route than Florida or Texas. As in Florida, students who rank in the top four percent of their high school class will be eligible for a place somewhere in the UC system but will not be guaranteed admission to their first-choice campus. The university also has revised its policies governing admissions -- as opposed to eligibility -- at the most over-subscribed UC campuses, to add high school class rank as a selection criterion. But this is only one of many criteria and does not guarantee automatic admission to those campuses.

The university is asking each high school to forward the transcripts of the top ten percent of their graduating seniors based on grade point average, as defined at the school. University staff then will analyze the transcripts to determine the top four percent at each school, based on the students' performance in specific academic courses. These include four years of English, three years of math, two years of history/social science, two years of laboratory science, two years of foreign language and two years of college elective courses. Beginning in 2003, one year of visual or performing arts also will be required.

Since some students in the top four percent will be identified at the end of the junior year, only 11 of the 15 courses will be required at that time. Top-ranked students must complete the remainder of the 15-course sequence during the senior year, and maintain an appropriate grade point average, in order to complete their eligibility for UC. This is expected to result in more students passing their university courses and proceeding to graduation.

At first, the high school class rank approach to admissions looks simple and straightforward. But students, parents and schools will utilize any ambiguity to help them gain entrance to highly selective campuses. Consequently, high schools must be given specific guidance about how to compute class rank. Policymakers need to establish their objectives for a high school class rank system, and to be sure that class rank provides both equal opportunity and intensive academic preparation.

Michael W. Kirst is a professor of education at Stanford University.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

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