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Chester County Press

U-CF School Board debates dropping decile ranking for high-school students

03/16/2016 01:19PM ● Published by J. Chambless

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

It's a good problem to have, but the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is ranked so highly that when colleges sit down to evaluate applications from prospective students, a difference of a tenth of a point can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Many prestigious colleges consider only the top 1 percent of applications, and graduates of Unionville High School – who have routinely been ranked by decile against their peers in transcripts – can be exceptional students with outstanding grades and still get passed over because they're not in the top part of the top 1 percent.

A change in district policy, sparked by a parent complaint to the board, would eliminate the decile ranking on transcripts. That proposal has been the focus of unprecedented input from students, parents, board members and administrators for the past several months. Some parents and students see the decile ranking as something that might give a slight edge when weighed along with GPA, essays, outside work and the intangibles that make up college acceptance. Others have said that ranking Unionville students against each other skews the numbers enough that students who are essentially just as worthy are passed over on the basis of a tenth of a point.

At their March 15 work session, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board settled in for a nearly four-hour meeting, much of which focused on discussion of whether to drop decile ranking.

During public comment, Nick Caputo, who graduated from Unionville last year, said, “I was in the second decile of the class last year. I'm a freshman at Carleton College, which is ranked as the eighth best liberal arts college in the country. These rankings are arbitrary, but I'll mention them because higher education has become a matter of prestige, and not personal development. Every year, students at UHS graduate and are ranked according to our GPA. That is the sole way that we are ranked in direct competition with each other. [The ranking] undermines the complete education of a student that Unionville professes to pursue. A GPA is not a student. Elite colleges know that. The reality of college admissions is that high school grades matter less and less. That lack of a standard of context guarantees that colleges will use other methods, like the essay, to adjudicate their admission decisions. A ranking system hurts many and helps no one. It is an archaic institution. It should be removed.”

A parent brought to the board a petition signed by 106 people who want to keep the decile ranking, or at least not eliminate it while there is no alternative in place. Before the meeting, copies of a petition from the class of 2017 were put on the board members' desks. It was signed by 80 students and read, in part, “This policy directly impacts our futures – we hope the board votes to eliminate the decile ranking system.”

Board president Victor Dupuis, who was participating in the meeting remotely via iPad, said, “I've come full circle on this. At first, it all made perfect sense to me – there was lots of logic behind elimination of decile rankings. As I listened to community members, I started to go other way. I heard the emotional frustration of the top decile parents as they reflected on their concerns about loss of recognition for students.

“I'm not hearing a compelling argument that there is damage done by eliminating the decile rankings for the top decile,” Dupuis said. “I'm only seeing evidence of potential harm to students who are not in the top decile. … At the end of the day, their decile ranking isn't important. What is important are their GPAs, SATs, activities, and essays. Class rank isn't relevant. The decile rank only disadvantages, it never gives anybody an advantage. Right now, the evidence I see says that the ranking should be eliminated. I would lean toward eliminating it now.”

District superintendent John Sanville said, “What's before the board is a change to Policy 214, which drops deciles now. There's been a lot of input, but we shouldn't lose our way on why this is before us at all. In spring of last year, we had a parent bring forth a concern about Policy 214 – that our use of decile ranking hurt our kids – specifically in the college application process. So that message resonated with the board. You charged the administration to examine that premise. The administration made a recommendation, after research, that we agreed with the premise. We recommended to drop deciles. ... You will have to make a decision and realize that you will not please everyone with what you decide.”

As a compromise solution, Sanville sent a suggested replacement for decile rankings to the board members last weekend. The GPA distribution list would rank students as “Greater or equal to 4.0, greater or equal to 3.5, greater or equal to 3.0, greater or equal to 2.5, greater or equal to 2.0, or less than 2.0.”

Board member Steve Simonson pointed out that the scale could still be deciphered, and essentially still ranks students.

While it was clear that board members favored dropping the current decile ranking, there was disagreement about the kind of compromise measure – or even if a compromise measure is necessary.

Sanville said, “I'd like to bring forward, for a vote in two weeks, the policy change as it stands right now, plus an administrative guideline that includes a GPA grade distribution. And there will be a graduation recognition for top-ranking seniors, either at graduation or at some other time.”

The board will vote on Policy 214 at their March 28 meeting.

In other business, the board heard about bids for the renovation work at Patton Middle School. The next phase of construction is the auditorium. The projected cost is $2,339,264, compared with a budgeted amount of $2,225,000. The board must approve bids at the March 28 meeting.

The much-discussed program to issue Chromebook devices to students in the district was the focus of an hour-long discussion.

The pilot program started in the 2013-14 school year with initial research. After extensive research and discussion, the next step is to issue the Chromebooks in some way. Ken Batchelor, the assistant to the superintendent, said, “The administration recommends the middle school pilot should expand to students in sixth to eighth grades using Chromebooks. The administration recommends a $75 technology fee for next year.”

Batchelor presented some numbers that weighed options for implementing the Chromebooks. In the first year, the proposed increase to the budget would be $239,000 if no fee was charged. With the $75 fee, the increase would be $165,000. In year two, with initiation of the program at the high school, the cost would be $339,000 with no fee charged, and $245,000 with the fee. By the fifth year, the impact on the district budget would be essentially zero increase.

Each Chromebook costs about $260. There was discussion of whether students could buy the devices outright and own them year-round, or pay a fee and give the devices back at the end of each year. The issue of insurance was also discussed.

Board member Jeff Hellrung said, “A Chromebook is like a textbook, essential academic equipment. We may not have to assess a fee, but issue the Chromebooks to students and give them an option to buy for the $75 fee. If we go to the middle school and ask if students would like to keep them over the summer or use it in school for a fee, I bet 90 percent or more would like to own their own. If this is standard academic equipment, should we be charging for it?”

Sanville summarized by saying, “Everyone seems supportive of moving ahead to Chromebooks for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders next year. So now it's just the fee options. If we can get action and support on the board, we can start planning. It's a big project. We'll work out the details for the financing. We'll put together plans for the board to consider. But the administration is moving forward with this initiative.

“I think it's a great idea, and the way we should go,” Sanville said. “This is a one-year plan, and we have time to figure out what we'll do in years two and three. Let's make sure we roll it out in a way that will be sustainable.”

Teachers at the middle school will be trained in using the Learning Management System (LMS), the online platform for schoolwork, and the Chromebooks will be given to all middle-school students next year. There will be professional development and training at the high school for teachers to use the LMS system, which is called Canvas, over the spring and summer. The Chromebook program is targeted to be rolled out at the high school in a year or two.

Looking ahead, the board will receive a budget for the next school year on April 11 at their work session. Budget hearings will be held until early May, with opportunities for public input and debate. At the May work session, the board will approve a proposed final budget. On June 20, a final budget will be approved, with the establishment of tax rates and the levying of taxes.

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


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