NYC schools propose ditching honor rolls and class ranks

September 3, 2021 • 9:30 am

The elimination of the meritocracy in schools is proceeding quickly, with abandonment of standardized testing, grades, and now, in a New York City proposal, class rankings and honor rolls as well.  Although a frequent excuse is that, during the pandemic, it’s unfair to hold people to “normal” academic standards, my prediction is that these changes will be permanent. That’s because the pandemic suspension is somewhat of a ruse, masquerading what’s envisioned as permanent change.

Everyone knows that the real reason for such changes—and the ones under consideration in this post are essentially post-pandemic—is that a meritocracy disadvantages some minority students because, on average, they don’t perform as well as Asian or white ones. And if people’s success depends on their performance in a ranking system, then there will be “inequity” in the Kendian sense: people will not be represented in achievements, or positions that require achievement, according to their proportion in the general population. According to Ibram Kendi, this kind of inequity is prima facie evidence of ongoing racism.

I doubt that’s true most of the time, but it may well be evidence of past racism. Regardless, it must be fixed, because even without current “structural” racism, many members of minorities don’t start at the same place as others. In other words, they lack equal opportunity from the outset, and inequities result from that combined with cultural differences that may devalue achievement.

Do we fix inequities by dismantling meritocracy in schools (or other areas)? Well, affirmative action does that a bit, but to me that’s justified as a form of reparations—a way of leveling the playing field. But you can practice affirmative action not by a wholesale dismantling of standards (e.g. eliminating SATs or grades), but by enriching your pool of students or job hires with people who are all qualified, but are more weighted with minorities.

This is a tricky balancing act, and it requires admitting that adhering strictly to a meritocracy will cause inequities, and admitting that yes, conventional measures of “merit” will fall. There’s also a problem of fairness. While the treatment of minorities in the past (and, for some, in the present) was unfair, there’s also unfairness in denying high achievers the rewards of their work. Finally, it requires admitting that in positions where quality is crucial, an average lowering of standards could be injurious (surgery, for example).

To me, the answer lies in realizing that nobody is really “responsible” for their failure or success: these things are determined by factors beyond people’s control. So while merit should be rewarded and failure punished as external stimuli to change behavior, this should be supplemented by a meaningful attempt to make up for inequalities of the past. My solution is, as I said, to see affirmative action as a form of reparations, but to be very careful how to exercise it, and, most important, to realize that the ultimate solution is not an indefinite continuation of affirmative action, but the creation of fundamental societal change that, by giving everyone equal opportunities from the outset, will make such reparations obsolete. That will take, as I say repeatedly, a lot of time and money, and it’s a lot easier to think that you’re fixing the problem by taking down statues or eliminating standardized tests.

Now the article below is from the New York Post, but checking other places seems to confirm that what it reports is accurate. I haven’t been able to find the official school guidelines.

Click to read.

The plan: Get rid of honor rolls and class rankings.

The reason: Several are given in the article (indented):

The city Department of Education wants schools to rethink honor rolls and class rankings because they’re “detrimental” to some kids, according to a new grading guidance.

“Recognizing student excellence via honor rolls and class rank can be detrimental to learners who find it more difficult  to reach academic success, often for reasons beyond their control,” the document states.

The DOE wants schools to widen recognitions to include “contributions to the school or wider community, and demonstrations of social justice and integrity.”

. . . “Grades are not only a reflection of student performance but can be self-fulfilling prophecies,” the document states. “Influencing future student performance either directly through their psychological impact or indirectly through instructional decisions, placement in courses, and guidance in post secondary options.”

I don’t think that honor rolls and class ranks are detrimental to those who don’t perform well. They might cause envy, but is there really a psychological route that will improve your performance if you do badly but are not told about it?  Don’t you need to know where you stand? In what sense is knowing you’ve performed poorly a “self-fulfilling prophecy”? As for “institutional decisions” not relying on ranking, that route leads to complete abandonment of rewarding achievement. And if achievement is not rewarded, nor failure “punished,” then there is no incentive to achieve.

John McWhorter had addressed a version of this, whereby low-performing students wash out of schools—not because of self-fulfilling prophecies, but with the realization that they’re just not cut out for a particular curriculum. His selection is to send lower-tier students to lower-tier schools, where they can get an education without washing out.

Now the new rules also say that other measures of student success such as behavior, attendance, and participation “should not affect grades.”  I disagree in part. To me, attendance is a sign of being serious about achieving, as is behavior. Participation not so much, for that depends on how much of an extrovert you are.

We all understand what’s happening here, but it becomes clearer in this sentence:

Staffers should “minimize the effects of bias and eliminate practices that penalize students who have been marginalized based on their race, culture, language and/or ability.”

If you count lower achievement as an “effect of bias”—past bias—then yes, this diktat tells us to get rid of ranking. But if you’re talking about accusations of present bias, it’s not so clear.

In the end, I wonder if the above rationale applies to the increasing criticisms I hear from the “progressive Left” about capitalism. If you listen to some of these people, you get the impression that they’d like to return to the Soviet era of collective farms! For capitalism, like schools, rewards achievement and merit, but does so with money rather than rankings. While I believe in the injection of socialism even into the most capitalistic societies like ours—it’s a way of giving a social cushion to the disadvantaged with programs like Medicare, unemployment benefits, and Social Security—you will never hear me say that we need to get rid of capitalism. That has been disastrous whenever it’s been tried, and even the most socialistic Western nations, like those in Scandinavia, are largely capitalistic.

But this is just a thought.


33 thoughts on “NYC schools propose ditching honor rolls and class ranks

  1. The complaints about capitalism grow louder and louder. I was commenting on a local Facebook group about restaurants where a discussion was held about tipping and servers’ wages. Several commenters said everything bad was the result of capitalism. They didn’t offer an alternative. Although these people probably didn’t have a clue, the abuses of capitalism are increasing to the point where a dangerously high percentage of citizens are calling for it to be abolished.

    1. With apologies to Winston Churchill: “Capitalism is the worst of all possible systems, except for all of the others.”

  2. “The DOE wants schools to widen recognitions to include ‘contributions to the school or wider community, and demonstrations of social justice and integrity.'”

    In other words: “work on behalf of our politics. Always agree with us. Never disagree. The more you agree with our politics and help us push them, the more you’ll be rewarded.”

    I mean, the gall to outright say that students will be rewarded not for political/social/policy activism and participation, but for those things when they’re in support of only a very narrow set of political goals, is insanity. It also very heavily implies that supporting any other kind of politics will be punished. And this is coming from government-funded schools! People’s tax dollars should not be spent to make students into soldiers for a specific political movement.

  3. You can tell what our society really values by its approach to equalizing opportunities to succeed in various venues. Academics: let’s change how we measure success to try to create the optics of racial equity. Employment in academia, government, and large corporations: optics of racial equity again important. Sports: nothing to see here, move along. Forty years of affirmative action in government employment and academia have not led to equity as measured by share of the population. It has led to discrimination against Asian achievers and has helped lead us to the present efforts to dismantle meritocracies. Employment in professional sports: move along, nothing to see here. I keep coming back to my seven year old lament: people are stupid.

    1. I would add— Employment in the performing arts: nothing to see here, move along. But only in the sense that being a successful performing artist is due to merit. (I’m thinking of the negative example of Florence Foster Jenkins again.) Having said that, I must say further that the performing arts, while meritocratic, are good examples of professions that are diverse and inclusive, though I’m still scratching my head trying to understand the film industry’s diversity rules.

    2. “Employment in professional sports: move along, nothing to see here.”

      Well, that’s not entirely true. The few sports that are largely white are constantly being discussed. Ice hockey, for example. Of course, the reason ice hockey is predominantly white is because hockey players tend to come from countries where (1) there are actually a significant number of ice rinks and interest in hockey, and/or (2) where the cultures that originated the game settled long ago. You’re not going to see ice hockey players from the UAE, Paraguay, or Somalia. It’s not racism; it’s just common sense.

      1. I’m a hockey fan and am pretty skeptical of a lot of racism claims. But pro hockey does have a problem.

        “As Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly sat in the penalty box during a game at Chicago’s United Center in February 2018, he listened as a group of white fans chanted “basketball, basketball, basketball” in his direction. The Blackhawks fans taunting Smith-Pelly, who is Black, were making their position clear: Hockey isn’t for everyone, and it’s especially not for Black people.” (

  4. I can’t see abandoning class ranking as such a big hit on meritocracy. I never attended any school with class rankings and honor rolls were very rarely used too. Despite that they were all pretty meritocratic.

    Grades are a different story however.

    1. Agreed. Definitely keep grades and GPA, and I think the Honor Roll is a good incentive for high achievers, but I see no value in a class rank. Unless your value is “I really want the dumb kids to know they’re the dumbest kid in class.”

      If class rank matters (and I can’t think why it would), rank only the Honor Roll students.

      1. The schools I attended never did rankings but I can see their benefit. Grades are often too rough a measure, especially with today’s grade inflation. Practically everyone gets an A or a B. Those that do really well are indistinguishable from those that perform only moderately. Rankings would provide a finer measure and promote more competition and pride in the higher performers. Rankings provide a finer grading similar to college entrance exams.

        1. You describe the situation where grading was practically abandoned or at least emptied. If there is no real (honest and meaningful) grading, then ranking the students is even more pointless than otherwise, because the input data for that fine measure is going to be the fake grading. At the other hand if the situation is resolved by bringing back real grading, then ranking is simply unnecessary.

      2. Class rank matters in some sense because schools vary tremendously in their average Grade Point Average. So if you see somebody with a 3.8 grade point average and you also see that they’re in the middle of their class ranks, you know that school is inflating its grades.

        1. Yes agreed. More pithily: having both objective (A B C) and relative (1st 2nd 3rd) measures of student performance provides more information than having either one of them alone.

          Sceptical hippo is correct that if the objective A B C system is just random noise, the relative one will be too. But I don’t see anyone seriously arguing that objective grading is just random noise.

  5. “They” were talking about this when I was a youngster and I knew then that it was dumb. Mind you, I was never a gold star (or even a silver star) student. Nevertheless, I was born with a logical mind so, even at that young age, I figured out that the gold star/silver star class list showed ALL of us not just where we stood, but where we needed to buckle down. Maybe I was just lucky that the gold star pupils weren’t arrogant punks – I don’t remember anyone teasing/bullying me for being in the bottom quartile, or for being the last picked for team games (me and the littlest girl). I saw the writing on the wall when I was in college in the mid-70’s – “they” brought in Pass-Fail grading and we started to hear about “grade-flation” and “grading on the curve”. Well, the curve is being flattened and even the teachers are getting dumber. (Was it the 80’s or the 90’s when they started to give class credit for mere attendance?) The Greatest Generation is dying out, and their grandkids are being shortchanged. What’s to be done?

  6. The DOE wants schools to widen recognitions to include “contributions to the school or wider community, and demonstrations of social justice and integrity.”

    I think I agree with this…sort of. Given that Universities look closely at extra-curriculars and community service, it stands to reason that a public school college prep track should provide it’s students with opportunities to do good extra-curriculars. Leaving community service up to the family is sort of like leaving AP tests up to the family – it would heavily favor the wealthy.

    The ‘demonstration of social justice’ language seems pretty politically biased though. End the sentence after “…community,” then we’re good.

    I believe in the injection of socialism even into the most capitalistic societies like ours—it’s a way of giving a social cushion to the disadvantaged

    It’s not just about disadvantaged, social safety nets are a simple recognition that bad luck and factors beyond our control sometimes result in hard honest workers temporarily striking out. The safety net is there to help them get back on their feet – to prevent a temporary setback from becoming a permanent one, and thus minimizing the lost labor cost to society.

    The equivalent in school terms would be: if you are getting bad grades, we will give you free tutoring and extra help until you get back to average. Which I would support.

    Our county has a program where HS students who get a serious (months-long) illness or injury are provided in-house teaching opportunities so they can keep on track with their studies and graduation requirements. It’s up to the parents and kid to work with the Homebound program teachers to schedule classes, but I don’t really see why this couldn’t be expanded to kids getting D’s and F’s who want it. Obviously if the county offers homebound instructional support and either the kid is a no-show or isn’t willing to put in the time, then that’s no longer the county’s obligation. But for kids who want to do better and circumstances prevent them, why not give them an educational safety net the way we give unemployed people an economic one?

  7. This is a brilliant campaign to privatize schooling in America. No parents that want their children to have a future involving something other than flipping burgers is going to send their children to one of these schools voluntarily. Employers are not interested in your participation trophy.

    We will see an increasing divergence between the haves, who get top services from their self funded private infrastructure, and have-nots will be left with crap public infrastructure. Haves won’t pay their fair share of taxes because they won’t benefit from public spending, and have nots will be too busy with things like bread riots to worry about democratic governance.

    I guess when people say they are “Progressive” they mean they want to fight to turn America “Progressively” into a Banana Republic.

  8. My best guess is that life is a genetic lottery that a few people win and most people lose. Fairness has nothing to do with it. The solution is not participation trophies to all, it would be shifting from a winner take all society to one where the benefits of production are more widely shared among all producers, rather being siphoned off to the top.

    1. Yeah but we aren’t nonsentient animals who must passively accept the lottery results. We are smart humans. If someone’s genetic lottery creates a struggle for their life, society provides medical care to help them survive. So if someone’s genetic lottery creates a struggle for them to learn, why not provide educational care to help them learn?

      1. Yes, I support universal education. No, I don’t support pretending that everyone has the same educational aptitude or ability. Moreover, I suspect 1/2 the support for pretending is that it is easier than actually improving education.

        1. One of the great deficits of socialism is that you get your best output out of people by rewarding them, either economically, or with honors or rank. Socialism really fails to motivate people to seek excellence. What we want from our education system is for students who strive for excellence, not conformists who are afraid to stand out and hide in mediocrity.

          Winner-take-all-capitalism in contrast, undermines social solidarity and cohesiveness, and ultimately de-stabilizes society. While I am not convinced that Rawlsian-style liberal democracy is the best way to handle the inequalities created by Capitalism (as it really fails to conceive of the human being as fulfilling a role within a society), if you put social-democracy side by side with libertarian capitalism, I would have to opt for the first. I am afraid by deliberately making public education terrible, you are actually furthering the perpetuation of a divisive class system that will undermine democracy.

        2. Who cares whether someone doesn’t have the same ‘educational aptitude.’ An asthmatic doesn’t have the same ‘lung aptitude’ I have – should we not give them medicine? So give the kid with less educational aptitude the equivalent of medicine. I.e. greater educational support.

          Is this really that hard to understand or accept? It won’t kill capitalism or society if the state provides extra training to the kids who need extra training to reach the same educational objective.

          And it serves your interests, and mine, if all those/our kids are given a stronger earnings power. Society is not zero sum; if your neighbor’s kid gets a better education, all the block’s housing values go up. Your local, county, state, and federal tax revenues go up. The neighborhood crime rate goes down. Corporations like Amazon are attracted and bring jobs with them. And so on.

      2. Definitely. And teachers do provide this (support). Some of my wife’s (first- and second-grade) students had full-time professionals assigned to them (think that’s expensive?).

        The answer is not to stop recognizing those who excel.

        At my son’s schools, they now only present academic awards at after-school ceremonies attended only by the recipients and their parents. So as not to “discourage” the people who don’t get awards. At least they still recognize excellent performance! What (Hank help us) should schools be recognizing other than academic excellence?

  9. While I believe in the injection of socialism even into the most capitalistic societies like ours—it’s a way of giving a social cushion to the disadvantaged with programs like Medicare, unemployment benefits, and Social Security—you will never hear me say that we need to get rid of capitalism.

    I’m foursquare for free enterprise, the greatest generator of economic well-being in the history of mankind. What makes me queasy is the concentration of capital in the hands of a few and the ever-increasing disparity of wealth in the US between the top 10% and the bottom half.

  10. My question about this is: That underperformance may very well carry into college, graduate school, medical school, law school, etc……and onto professions.

    What then? How will hospitals, corporations, law firms, etc, vet the quality of hires Is the United States about to be hit with a tsunami of mediocrity and incompetence unlike what’s happened in the past?

  11. Although the impetus for the attack on meritocracy stems from the average performance level of Black students, it is much broader. School staff are enjoined to “eliminate practices that penalize students who have been marginalized based on their race, culture, language and/or ability. ” Lack of ability is no longer to be “penalized” by, presumably, not receiving the same reward as the presence of ability.

    The educrats who push this view must believe that the conveniences of the modern world are automatic, like the light that goes on when you just press a switch—a perspective no doubt gained from their deep training in Critical Social Justice Theory. So the attack is not just on capitalism, but on the “inequity” of differential abilities. In woketopia, everyone receives the same grade, and the same trophies—while the electric current, computers, cellphones, TVs, transportation systems, medical systems, and all the rest somehow continue to operate. Cyril Kornbluth considered this utopia back in 1951, in his classic sci-fi novella “The Marching Morons” [plot summary at Wikipedia].

  12. Karl Marx’s dictum, translated roughly as, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” makes more sense than what passes for equity these days. Most of our intact families with children pretty much follow that dictum – you give each child what’s best for him or her, and demand only what’s appropriate from each. Treating them as equal – or anyone else – does not mean treating them as identical.

  13. Why not go whole-hog and get rid of all ratings (no grades, no tests, no marking of homework). All students get all As. That will serve them well when they go to work or university.

  14. To me, the answer lies in realizing that nobody is really “responsible” for their failure or success: these things are determined by factors beyond people’s control.

    All true.

    So while merit should be rewarded and failure punished as external stimuli to change behavior, this should be supplemented by a meaningful attempt to make up for inequalities of the past.

    Yes, in that kids born into less-advantaged circumstances should indeed be helped.

    My solution is, as I said, to see affirmative action as a form of reparations, …

    But why does this follow? A white kid born into disadvantaged circumstances is no more responsible for his situation than a black kid born into similar disadvantaged circumstances. So this is an argument for helping disadvantaged kids. It’s not an argument for “affirmative action” (aka “discriminating on the basis of race”).

Leave a Reply