During the October Black River Falls School Board meeting, district administrators proposed implementing a new system that would replace the class rank system for high school students with the cum laude system.

“The education system for many years has functioned on the class rank system where it is a race to the top to be the valedictorian/salutatorian and then everybody else falls below,” Black River Fall Superintendent Shelly Severson said. “Right now in the nation fewer than 50 percent of high schools still do class rank. Instead they do some other combination of things to try to identify and recognize students for their level of rigor and accomplishment while in high school.”

The cum laude system grants students points for taking harder courses in school and maintaining a base-level GPA. Students are then grouped into categories including cum laude for the lowest range of points, magna cum laude for a middle range and summa cum laude for the highest range.

The Black River Falls School District is discussing making this change to reduce a common problem faced by students at the top of the traditional class ranking system.

“What you are getting away from is what happens often in a class rank – valedictorian/salutatorian system – is that often times it becomes a numbers game that can be manipulated by students taking different coursework and different courses that might inflate their GPA. It might not be as rigorous as what other students are taking,” Black River Falls Principal Tom Chambers said.

Severson said that in the current system, many students will have a really hard schedule their junior year and then senior year the students will reduce the rigor of classes to maintain their GPA.

“This would continue to challenge them to try and collect more points,” Severson said.

Blair-Taylor has been working on implementing the cum laude system for several years and just graduated their first class using the new system last year.

“We wanted to give students that recognition and incentive to move towards classes that are more challenging without being quite as concerned about the consequences of not maintaining a 4.0 or not maintaining the highest grades possible,” Blair-Taylor Principal Dana Eide said.

This change has encouraged students at Blair-Taylor to take classes that will challenge them and prepare them for college.

“I think a lot of students have benefited from challenging themselves in that there are more and more students that are achieving college or post-secondary credits more so than in the past as a result of trying to get these points,” Eide said. “I’ve had conversations with eighth graders that are aware of the system and they are looking at what can they do to be ready to take college classes in high school. Those kinds of conversations didn’t really take place as much prior to having the cum laude.”

The Black River Falls School District has many course offerings that would provide the rigor required for college students.

“Part of the reason that this came up in Black River Falls is because we offer a lot of A.P. (Advanced Placement) courses where students are eligible to take a test and get college credit for that class,” Severson said adding that they also partner with Western Technical College so students can take transcripted classes.

“We very much encourage our students to challenge themselves and to be able to do that, not to mention it gives them a leg up when they go to college because they have some credits under their belt before they get there,” Severson said. “The admissions officers tell us they are looking more for the level of rigor of courses.”

Severson said that the cum laude system would also force colleges to review the rigor of the student’s curriculum as opposed to just relying on the student’s class rank, “It gives you a more holistic view of that student than just the GPA.”

By rewarding students for taking harder classes, the cum laude system would also better prepare students for college after high school.

“You could have a 4.0 GPA and never taken a college-level course or you could have a 3.8 GPA and have filled your day with college-level material throughout. This is a way to reward students for being that risk taker and challenging themselves with that more challenging curriculum. If you look at those two students, which one is really likely at being most successful in post-secondary? Probably the one that took the more challenging and ended with a 3.8 as opposed to the student who took the safe route and has a 4.0,” Severson said.

The school board liked the initial idea and so approved the administration to move forward.

“We wanted to make sure that it was something the board would actually be open to discussing and thinking about. We floated it by the board and they were positive about taking a look at it and considering it. Now it is coming back to the building to try and work through that process of discussion at the building level with teachers, families and students,” Chambers said.

Now the school is working with stakeholders to setup the cum laude system that works for the district, just like Blair-Taylor did when they were working on their system.

“We used models from a number of other school districts in Wisconsin that are using the cum laude system to help develop our system, so no they are not all the same,” Eide said.

The Black River Falls School District will need to decide what classes earn points, how to provide the state-sponsored valedictorian scholarship and many other formalities before it enacts the new system.

With last year being the first year Blair-Taylor graduated students in the new system, Eide admits it was hard for people to understand that it wasn’t just about the valedictorian and salutatorian.

“It was definitely a transition for us in going from having a valedictorian and salutatorian to recognizing cum laude because it is different than what people are familiar with,” Eide said. “Now it is about us recognizing any number of kids who have reached this certain level of challenge successfully.”