6.2.10 – Del Stover – For decades, the tradition at high school graduation ceremonies has been for the valedictorian — the top-achieving student in the class — to offer a farewell speech to fellow graduates as they listen quietly in their caps and gowns.
By Del Stover
American School Board Journal
For decades, the tradition at high school graduation ceremonies has been for the valedictorian — the top-achieving student in the class — to offer a farewell speech to fellow graduates as they listen quietly in their caps and gowns.
That’s so old school.
These days, it’s not unusual for a high school graduation ceremony to honor a dozen or more valedictorians — or none at all. At some schools, high-achieving students line up to make a few remarks at the podium with awards-show brevity. Elsewhere, no one is given a special moment under the sun.
This is not the most momentous issue in public education, but how a high school honors its top students — and whether it reports class rankings — is a surprisingly common one for today’s school boards. Indeed, every few years, the selection criteria spark controversy somewhere and spill over into the courts.
Why things are changing
How something so seemingly mundane can become a policy headache isn’t hard to explain. Start with the intense competition that exists for college acceptance and scholarships. Then point to grade inflation that allows so many students to achieve all A’s.
Finally, blame the use of “weighted grades” for academically rigorous classes that can skew the traditional 4.0 grade point average (GPA) to as high as 6.0. Trouble really arises when students’ class rankings vary by a tenth or even a few hundredths of a point, especially if there’s any dispute about the tally’s accuracy, objectivity, or fairness.
That’s what happened a few years ago in Moorestown, N.J., where a high school senior won a $60,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed after school officials tried to name a co-valedictorian. A key factor in the dispute was that the board had adopted retroactively a policy allowing multiple valedictorians, following student and parent complaints that the single valedictorian had received unfair accommodations due to health problems.
Thankfully, such horror stories are rare. Most school boards simply are tweaking policies to address minor and unanticipated problems. Last year, for example, Rutherford County Schools outside Nashville, Tenn., toughened its policy after its seven high schools produced 57 valedictorians.
Under the new policy, students must take a number of honors or Advanced Placement classes to be honored, district spokesman James Evans says. The district hopes the change “will be an incentive for our best and brightest students to take those most challenging courses.”
“A lot of people thought it seemed out of whack that we had so many valedictorians,” Evans says. “As it turned out, some students were avoiding challenging courses to protect their 4.0.”
One step up, one step back
Thinking that’s similar to Rutherford County’s lies behind many policy changes these days. Although many high schools still name a single valedictorian for each graduating class, others long ago opted for a more inclusive approach — and matters gradually got out of hand.
That’s what happened in Hesperia, Calif., where local high schools produced 37 valedictorians last year. A new, tougher policy that takes effect with the class of 2013 will significantly reduce those numbers, officials say.
In revising the criteria, educators say the goal isn’t just to trim an embarrassing number of valedictorians. Some worry that, in the quest to win top honors, students load up on weighted Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or honors courses to boost their GPAs. That strategy often means students deny themselves enrollment in such enriching and creative classes as art, drama, photography, or music.
That worry was one reason why school officials at Oak Park and River Forest High Schools, outside Chicago, capped the number of courses in which weighted grades can be counted in determining a student’s GPA, says district spokeswoman Katherine Foran.
“We want them to feel as if they can still achieve this highest goal and yet experience non-honors courses … those wonderful joy-making courses,” Foran says.
Another strategy to undercut the competition for top honors was last year’s decision to drop the term valedictorian, she says. Now the most successful students are called Scholarship Club recipients. Names are engraved on a silver trophy, and the students lead the graduation processional in recognition of their academic efforts.
Such attempts to downplay the competition for top student has its advantages, some educators say. Sometimes final semester grades aren’t available until days before graduation, prompting schools to choose a valedictorian based on seven semesters’ worth of grades.
As long as the criteria are clearly publicized, that seldom is a problem, but it can still raise an eyebrow when class rankings change because of final semester grades.
Some schools seek to sidestep the problem by embracing the model used by universities, graduating students with the distinction of cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, with honors based on specific levels of GPAs, says Thomas Guskey, professor of education psychology at the University of Kentucky.
Given the wide range of policies adopted across the nation, it’s no surprise that a few schools even opt to return to old traditions. Starting with the class of 2011, each high school in California’s Corona-Norco Unified School District will have only one valedictorian — ending an older system that resulted in one local high school naming 50 last year.
New criteria call for each school to name the student with the highest GPA as valedictorian (with co-valedictorians only in cases of ties). All other students who score within one-tenth of a point of the valedictorian will be named salutatorians.
“Our school communities felt that possibly our current process for determining valedictorians was too inclusive,” says Bob Taylor, the district’s administrative director of secondary education. Also, he adds, “recognizing [so many] students took away from some of the prestige of the honor.”
The designation’s decline
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