Teen filmmaker challenges class rank system as dangerous for students’ mental health

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GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — A Georgetown High School junior is taking on the class rank system that compares students based on grade point average in a short film she created as a class assignment.

Ashlee Reed will screen “Ranked” Tuesday evening at the school. The 12-minute film explores how important class rank can be to students and the impact a number can have on their mental and physical health.

“You feel that pressure in every test you take and every assignment you turn in and every night you spend studying,” Reed told KXAN Monday.

Class rank is an important factor in college admissions in Texas. The top 10% of each high school graduating class are guaranteed admission to most state universities with the exception of University of Texas at Austin, which is even more selective, taking up to the top 7% of graduating seniors. 

What’s more, the top-ranked student at each high school earns free tuition for his or her first year at any state school.

Rankings are supposed to be confidential, Reed said, but it doesn’t stop students from figuring out where they stand.

“In their minds and in conversations,” she said, “they are asking people what number they are so that they can make a list in their head of who’s where.”

The short film follows a student, known to viewers only “#15,” played by Reed’s classmate Gwendolyn Kuhn, as she recruits “#9” to help her study to bring up her rank. The story takes a violent turn, first, ostensibly, as a study technique, then again when #15 realizes her study partner’s motives aren’t what they seem.

“When you are obsessed or just affected by the class ranking system,” Reed said, “you mentally beat yourself up over your grades, so I wanted to portray that physically.”

Reed shot the film over fall break at the school and edited it together mostly at home. She screened the short film initially at the inaugural GTX Film Festival in April and has been accepted to the student-centric Pegasus Film Festival in Dallas later this week.

The young filmmaker wants to show her classmates and others watching the project that while getting good grades and doing well in school are important, it can be dangerous to focus on a number.

Weston Collman, an English teacher at GHS and actor in Reed’s film, said students should focus on learning, not grades. His role in “Ranked” is brief, handing #15 a grade of 80 on a test she took recently. 

Collman is also Reed’s teacher for her capstone class, for which she made the short film, and said the student’s reaction to seeing the grade — a mix of disbelief and disappointment — is all too common.

“It was a real emotional scene for me, because I could see that look in the actress’s face, and you see that all the time,” he said. “An 80 to them is like a failing grade.”

The pressure comes from a variety of sources, Reed said, “whether that be your parents, your personal motivation, your desire for a certain school,” and focusing on rank is a difficult impulse to overcome. She still thinks about her own number, even as she was making the film.

“I’m balancing having a good class rank, because it matters, but also balancing not letting it consume my life,” she said.

That’s the message she hopes other students take from the project: You are not your rank.

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