At the beginning of my senior year of high school, Tyler and I were neck and neck in class rankings—if memory serves, he was slightly ahead. This never got in the way of our friendship. We had spent too much time playing the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars Roleplaying Game together, and a few years earlier, we’d even spent one memorable night with our mutual friend Chris hiking repeatedly back and forth between Tyler’s house and mine so that we could find the right hardware for hooking up someone’s GameCube to my family’s venerable TV so that we could play TimeSplitters 2. When a local news station wanted to take photos of local high school valedictorians, our school didn’t know how things would shake out, so they sent us both, and we were both comfortable enough with things going either way that we drove up to Cincinnati together, in the BMW that Tyler had bought with earnings from several springs and summers of a successful local yard business he’d started with his older brother.
A few months later, things shook out the way that they did, and I was announced as valedictorian and Tyler as salutatorian. Both of us knew, though, that this wasn’t necessarily because I’d done better than Tyler in our senior year courseloads. Rather, there was a particular—perhaps even peculiar—way that Boone County High School calculated class rankings that became relevant in the last two semesters Tyler and I spent there. Class rankings were determined by adding up the numerical grades that students got in each class and then sorting accordingly. So, a freshman who had earned a 100, a 98, a 97, and a 94 in their first semester at BCHS would have—for the purposes of their class ranking—a total of 389, whereas a freshman who had earned 95s across the board would have a 380. However, there was a twist to this! BCHS also had a policy of multiplying all grades in honors classes by 1.04, and all grades in AP classes by 1.08. So, it was possible to see a grade as high as a 108 on one’s report card, and when it came to class rankings, there was an inherent advantage to taking honors and AP classes.
At the end of the day, this system had just as much to do with my valedictory status at the end of the year than my (or Tyler’s) performance in our classes. I had taken the required Physical Education I class years earlier and promptly decided I didn’t need any more of that in my life and bookwormed my way into as many bookwormy classes as I could (including French VI and VII, which didn’t really exist on the rolls but that the BCHS French teacher kindly made happen for me and some other French nerds). Tyler was a more well-rounded high school student and I believe he was enrolled in Physical Education III during our senior year. While it’s impossible to say for sure, I’m pretty sure that was the reason that he wound up as salutatorian instead of valedictorian. I don’t have any reason to believe that he earned anything less than a 100 in junior-level gym; in contrast, it’s entirely possible that despite my Francophilia, I earned something less than a perfect score in French VI. However, according to the rules that BCHS played by, a 98 in French VI (an honors class) would have become something just short of a 102. Thus, a less-than-perfect score in French VI could count for more than a perfect score in Physical Education III, and a few points here and there were enough to get me past Tyler and take the top spot in our high school class rankings.
I hadn’t thought of this moment in my life for years and years before it popped into my head this morning. This may be the first time that I’m revisiting this memory through an academic’s eyes, and as I do, I’m reminded of how non-objective and value-laden quantiative measures are. “Numbers don’t lie,” we like to say, but if there’s no outright deception in my (or Tyler’s) high school class ranking, there is a lot that’s concealed in the numbers “1” and “2”—or even the underlying grade totals that determined the ordinal numbers that resuted from them. Sure, it’s a straightforward fact that my grade total was higher than Tyler’s by the end of our senior year, but that hides just how many value judgements are happening behind the scenes. We attended a school that valued performance in honors and AP classes above performance in other classes, and tweaked numbers accordingly. Furthermore, we attended a school that applied the “honors” label to some classes and not others and that offered some Advanced Placement courses and not others. All of those decisions went into the quantitative measures that determined class ranking, thereby adding an undeniable amount of subjectivity into the process.
This is not to say that those decisions weren’t defensible! I don’t know that I should have beaten Tyler to the top spot simply because he took an additional PE class in his senior year, and I imagine there are very compelling arguments against letting students self-segregate into honors and non-honors classes in the first place. Despite those caveats, though, I get why BCHS did what it did. My point is not so much that BCHS’s particular way of calculating class rankings while I was a student there is non-objective and wrong: It’s that any quantitative measure of class ranking would necessarily rest on a number of value judgments and subjective decisions along the way.
More importantly, my point is that the vast majority (or perhaps even the entirety?) of quantiative measures that we use in research (and, for that matter, grading) are value laden and non-objective. This does not make any or all of these measure indefensible, but it does require us to engage more in the kinds of conversations and debates that require them to be defended. In our interconnected, data-rich world, we are constantly at risk of believing quantitative measures to be objective and authoritative, and the increased prominence of datafication and quantification are only going to make this risk greater. Understanding—and constantly emphasizing—that quantiative data are subjective isn’t just a navel-gazing exercise or a paradigmatic critique: Rather, it’s a safety measure for our present and future that we would be unwise to ignore.
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