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Parents, students and board debate dropping decile ranking at Unionville High School

02/23/2016 11:58AM ● Published by J. Chambless

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The meeting began as a showcase for the brand-new renovations at the Patton Middle School on Feb. 22, with the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board taking its place in the school auditorium.

Patton principal Tim Hoffman thanked the board for their support during the renovations, which included a new, secure entryway, new hallway and offices. “This may be the last board meeting in this space,” Hoffman said of the auditorium, which is next on the list for an extensive renovation. “We're looking forward to that process and getting a much-improved space for our kids and our community. The new hallway is being called the Happy Hallway by our kids. Our kids just feel happy when they're in it.”

Hoffman also acknowledged assistant principal James Fulginiti, who will be retiring, effective July 31. “He's been my right hand during my four years here at Patton,” he said. “He always talks to the kids about integrity. Jim is the most consistent person I know, and integrity is his whole being. He also tells the kids about service above self. Jim has been a mentor to me, and a friend.”

Fulginiti said, “I've been able to share in the stewardship of the children in our community. I've been a part, among many others, in our most valuable and important resource, our young people. It has been a true privilege to serve.”

The auditorium was packed with students and parents who came to address the board about a proposed change to a district policy regarding decile ranking of students at Unionville High School. The policy change, which was scheduled for a vote at the meeting, would remove the decile ranking of seniors at the high school when grades are sent to prospective colleges. For the next hour and 45 minutes, the board heard from parents who want to keep the rankings in order to give their children whatever slight edge they can get when applying to top colleges, as well as from students and parents who feel that rankings will negatively affect the 90 percent of students who have good grades, but are not within the critical top percentage points.

Beverly Brookes, from Penn Township, told the board, “One of the most common complaints I've heard in the past year is that the school district tends to ignore the average to above-average students. A great deal of the accolades go to the top 10 percent, and a lot of attention is paid to the special-needs students. The remaining 80 percent seem to be left in limbo.” Eliminating the decile ranking, she said, “will help the entire school population, not just the top 10 percent.”

Caroline Fisher, a junior at the high school, said, “I will not be in the top 10 percent of my class, but I have worked extremely hard for my GPA, and I'm very proud of my academic accomplishments. I believe we should do away with decile ranking because it hurts my chances of attending a highly selective college. I am competing against students from other schools that do not submit rankings, and therefore, those students have a competitive advantage over me. ... I do not understand why our school hinders students by continuing to use outdated decile rankings. This needs to be abolished.”

Another Unionville High School student, David DiMarco, said, “As a student who may rank in the upper decile, I find it illogical and unethical to extend this system into Unionville's future. Like others in the potential top 10 percent, I'm glad to say that Unionville has already helped me stand out to some of the top schools in the country. That's why it's surprising that we are vying to add an extra statistic to the clouded minds of admission officers. The hard truth about the decile system is that, like most things in our competitive country, it is structured to support the few at the expense of others. The decile system renders 90 percent of the student body disposable.

“We are blessed to have an abundance of students above the top 1 percent of students in most other districts,” DiMarco continued. “Why is it that we risk limiting the academic potential of students who work just as hard, or even harder, than their peers with a .1 grade point average above them?”

Amy Ray, a parent from Pennsbury Township, said, “By now it is clear that the current rank reporting policy hurts the majority of Unionville students. The proposed policy change would remove that harm. By adopting this policy, Unionville will be joining its peer high schools, which have done away with reporting rank, because according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, it penalizes many excellent students who are squeezed out of the top 10 percent of the class and then overlooked by elite colleges. Having no decile rank information will be a neutral factor in these students' applications. Dropping the reporting will not hurt these students.

“But that isn't persuasive to some parents, who remain convinced that this piece of data might be the make-or-break to get their kid into Princeton, Harvard or MIT,” Ray continued. “You can choose a policy that stops the harm for the majority of Unionville High School students, does not harm the top decile, increases the chances for more excellent students to gain acceptance to top schools, and enhances the standing of the school while doing so. I think your choice is clear.”

Brad Saunders, a junior at Unionville, favored keeping the decile rankings. “Rankings provide colleges with a valid data point that demonstrates the work ethic and ability of a student. To me, removing academic rankings is as unjust as removing athletic rankings,” he said. “Removing rankings is essentially giving everyone a participation medal. Unionville is not that kind of school. Why would you slight your top students and weaken their applications? Top students should be rewarded for the hard work they put in. When it comes to college applications, every bit can help.”

Former school board member Kathleen Do addressed the board from the audience and commented that, “As board members, it is your responsibility to do what is in the best interest of the school community, and to do no harm. Eliminating decile ranking is a textbook example of an opportunity for you to serve the best interest of the great majority of the students while doing no harm to the remaining students. My son, who is a junior, is having a wonderful experience at Unionville High School. My son loves music. He loves sports. He's a good student. His GPA is very good. By national standards, it's excellent. But at slightly below 4.0 percent, by Unionville standards, he is just above average.

“Many people on this board have talked about the importance of a holistic educational experience,” Do continued. “No student should ever be penalized for making this choice. But because we are such a high-performing school, that is exactly what we are doing to these students when we report their decile rank. Some people are saying that we have reported decile rank for 25 years and if ain't broke, why should we fix it? I maintain that if a significant number of our students are seeing doors to the colleges they wish to attend close on them because of their decile rank, then our system is broken. It is up to you to fix it.”

Al Iacocca, a parent from East Marlborough Township, said, “In general, I am getting a sense in the past couple of years of an antipathy to academic success, and it is starting to bother me. OK, so there are 300 kids in a class and 200 kids are getting recognized for academic achievement. Where's the achievement? We're recognizing mediocrity. We have lots of great people and lots of success, but these are participation medals at this point, and it has cheapened what we're doing for that top 10 percent. Universities will figure out who they want and those children will shine, based on their merit. The decile ranking is really irrelevant, to be honest.”

When it came time to vote on the policy change, board member John Murphy said, “This is a very emotional issue. We are all parents and we feel strongly about it. There's data that shows that having the decile rankings may hinder a lot of our students. The more we hear from people with a direct connection to the admissions process, the more we can learn. We are not quite ready to move on this.”

Board member Elise Anderson added, “There does seem to be evidence pointing toward removal of the decile ranking. The college application process seems extremely subjective. I agree with Mr. Murphy. I'd feel more comfortable coming to a vote with a little bit more data.”

Board member Michael Rock said, “The high school has a good national ranking. That's what gets our kids into top schools. They have good SAT scores, they have a good GPA, they take a lot of AP classes, they have letters of recommendation, they do a lot of extracurricular activities. Those are the things that make a difference. I don't think decile ranking adds up to a hill of beans. Our top kids will get into the top schools, irrespective of whether they're in the top 1 percent or the top 10 percent.”

Board member Robert Sage said, “I believe our current policy is harmful to certain segments of students. Many other top-shelf private high schools and public school districts in Pennsylvania have already made this change. Admissions officers seem to be suggesting that we do the same thing. If we can help a large segment of our students by making this change, then I think we ought to do it.”

District superintendent John Sanville concluded, “One of the great things about Unionville-Chadds Ford is we have involved community. This school board is willing to listen. I have 12 pages of notes here from things that the public has said and board members have said tonight. There are some questions that need to be answered. How do we recognize our top graduates if we don't have a decile ranking? What do we do with that top 10 percent or top 5 percent? Is there a phase-in to this process? Do we want to consider doing this for the class of 2017, or wait for class of 2020 or something in between? There are some things dangling out there that guide us to having the administration go back to do some more work. Then we can come back in March. There has to be a decision made next month.”

The board voted to study the issue for another month and will vote on the proposed policy change at next month's board meeting.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.



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