Being the valedictorian of high school was at one time a singular honor. It meant the student had the highest GPA in the graduating class and was usually asked to deliver the commencement speech at graduation to share words to advise his or her fellow students into the adult world.
Moriah Balingit of The Washington Post writes that schools are increasingly awarding valedictorian honors to significant percentages of graduating classes.
In California, Long Beach Polytechnic had 30 valedictorians because every student who made straight As won the title in spite of the fact that other students had higher GPAs from taking Advanced Placement courses. North Hills High outside of Pittsburgh and some Miami high schools had no valedictorians. In a struggle to balance praise for students with the movement to quell unhealthy competition among classmates, some claim the meaning of a well-earned and long-standing honor has been sacrificed.
Not to mention the confusion it has caused for college admissions officers, who now often cannot discern if a student has finished at 100th in the class or first. Others counter that eliminating the valedictorian title allows students to focus on their achievements and accomplishments without having to be concerned about their ranking in the class.
“Education’s not a game. It’s not about ‘I finished first and you finished second,’ ” said North Hills Superintendent Patrick J. Mannarino, who was the North Hills High principal when the school got rid of the valedictorian designation in 2009. “That high school diploma declares you all winners.”
Some schools have not given up the tradition, such as the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. Principal Joyce Kenner said:
“I don’t plan to change our system as long as I’m principal,” adding that allowing multiple valedictorians “would water down the valedictorian title.”
Forest Grove High School in Oregon allowed 20 students to claim the title of valedictorian even though senior Archer Morgan is at the head of the class with a weighted 4.5 GPA, writes Dillon Pilorget of The Oregonian. This school gives the title to all students who achieve a weighted GPA of 4.0 or higher and have taken at least four Advanced Placement courses and 14 core classes in math, English, science, and a foreign language.
“I think it’s honoring kids that work hard,” said Duane Anderson, counseling department chair at the high school. “It gives them something to shoot for and strive for.”
Anderson adds that the fact that more than just one person can be the valedictorian — even students who might not be able to imagine themselves as contenders for the title — makes students feel motivated to strive for it. He also does not believe that the titles give an unearned advantage to some students when it comes to applying to college.
Jericho High School in New York will not have a valedictorian speech at graduation, because seven students received A+ averages, and having that many students speak would have take a significant amount of time. The seven will perform a skit about their experiences at the high-achieving school in Long Island, writes Winnie Hu of The New York Times.
“When did we start saying that we should limit the honors so only one person gets the glory?” asked Joe Prisinzano, the Jericho principal.
Some parents say the rising number of valedictorians is another symptom of rampant grade inflation and evidence of the reluctance of teachers to put at risk the brightest and best students’ chances of getting into top-rated colleges. But the Dean of Admissions at Harvard, William R. Fitzsimmons, said he has seen a school have 100 valedictorians and has seen a home-schooled student labeled the #1 student out of his single-student home class.
“I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism,” he said. “This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”