By Grace McCormick
‘High school comes with plenty of competition in athletics, clubs, activities and academics. In an effort to lessen the academic pressure on students, schools across the nation have made changes to the practice of naming a valedictorian. Some schools have discarded the tradition, while others have started to award the honor to multiple students.
In 2015, Dublin, Ohio’s Coffman High School named 96 total students as the top students of their class. Dublin schools awarded the title of valedictorian to anyone with at least a 4.1 grade-point average. Other high schools, including Virginia’s Washington-Lee High School and Washington’s Garfield High School of Washington, use a similar system to name top students.
David Hawkins, executive director of educational policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, sees nothing wrong with naming so many valedictorians. Hawkins told The Columbus Dispatch that if students achieve the highest level of academic achievement at their school, which he defines as a 4.0 GPA, they should be named valedictorian.
The highest level of academic achievement can have many defining factors. Some educators espouse the traditional Latin system of honoring the student with the highest GPA, while others think factors such as the difficulty of classes taken, community service and scores on college entrance exams should also be taken into account.
At Fort Wayne Community Schools, advanced placement and college level courses have a weighted GPA, so students who take more challenging courses will strengthen their overall GPA if they perform well in the class. Some electives, such as computer science and Biomed, also have a weighted GPA. A problem with weighted electives is that students who are interested in band or art might shy away from taking these courses and opt for something that will increase their GPA.
Junior Maxwell Eckelbarger, third in his class, has taken choir his entire high school career.
“Students’ minds should not be confined,” Eckelbarger said. “[Weighted GPA] directs students to take certain classes simply because they are weighted heavier.”
A solution to the inequality between science and arts electives could be giving a weighted GPA to advanced fine arts classes, such as Wind Ensemble, Advanced 2-D Art or Synergy Choir. Eckelbarger believes the evening out of weighted GPA among student interests would make the grading system more equitable.
“To be completely honest, I don’t think weighted GPA classes should exist at all,” Eckelbarger said. “If they do exist, I think there should be at least two offered for each discipline. That way students can pursue the disciplines they enjoy without having to unfairly compete with students whose career ideas align more with their classes.”
Guidance counselor Ms. Adrienne Shroyer argues that the course material in advanced and honors classes are not college level.
“The reason we can give weighted GPA to Biomed and dual credit kids is because they are taking a college level class,” Ms. Shroyer said. “An honors class, that’s not college level.”
Ms. Shroyer said, generally, students who hold a 2 or 3 class rank take similar classes, including electives, as the top student.
“We don’t disclose what a student is taking,” Ms. Shroyer said, “but the students in the top ten, they’re all friends, so they can ask each other what classes they signed up for.”
One of the reasons many schools altered their method of naming valedictorians was to encourage students to seek out their interests rather than focus on the effect each class would have on their GPA.
Lisa Luten, spokeswoman for North Carolina’s Wake County schools, told The Wall Street Journal their school system will stop naming valedictorians after the class of 2018 because “principals were noticing that students were selecting courses for the possibility of increasing their grade point average” instead of choosing classes that were interesting to them.
Snider is home to students who fall victim to the same problem.
“I definitely know people who won’t take a class because the teacher doesn’t give A+s,” Rachel Maciejewski, who has the top GPA in the junior class, said. “That’s a little silly to me. It’s just high school.”
All FWCS schools honor valedictorians and salutatorians the same way, using the Latin honors system. The student with the highest GPA in his or her class is named valedictorian and the student who has the second highest GPA is named salutatorian.
Sometimes, fewer than one tenth of a percentage point draws the line between the top two students. Only three times – in 1971, 2000 and 2002 – did Snider have two students with the same GPA at the top of their class. Those students shared the honor of valedictorian.
Ms. Shroyer could not disclose the difference between the GPA of the valedictorian and salutatorian of Snider’s class of 2018.
The tradition of honoring valedictorians and salutatorians is important and should continue to be practiced. However, when half a semester grade ultimately determines who becomes the top student, school boards may want to change the way valedictorians are honored.
Ms. Shroyer would rather have a system that names all students with a 4.0 GPA or higher a valedictorian.
“I see how much pressure these kids put on themselves just to be number one,” she said. “I’d rather have a system that recognizes all students who get to a certain point.”
There would be fairness between students and their GPA if all teachers graded assignments in the same manner. Some teachers are more lenient in their grading than others and some will bump up a student’s semester grade if they perform well in the class. Though multiple students might take the same course, the teacher they get could affect their grade, even if they perform equally as well as another student with a different teacher.
Of course, forcing all teachers to grade the same way as each other would be unfair to them, as they already spend enough time grading papers. It is impossible to create a fair learning environment for everyone, so if we want to ensure the naming of valedictorian and salutatorian is fair, we must take into account the causes of the small differences in GPA.
Eckelbarger and Maciejewski agree that weighted GPA can push students away from their interests. Maciejewski said there are students who have signed up for all weighted GPA classes in an effort to steal the title of valedictorian from her.
“Competition in the top ten is something I was not prepared for,” Maciejewski said. “It can be alarming when all of a sudden you feel like there is a target on your back.”
Some competition is healthy, but the battle for the valedictorian title might be too harsh, especially when the only defining factor is GPA.
“I saw the ugly side of it,” former valedictorian of Heritage High School in North Carolina, Jason Lee, told The Wall Street Journal. “Strained friendships, competition and conspiracy.”
Competition to be the top student can cause fatigue. Studying more than 3.1 hours each night can lead to increased stress, sleep deprivation, health problems and less time for enjoyable activities, Stanford University suggested in a study published in The Journal of Experimental Education.
Many students are aware of the immediate and long-term effects pushing themselves can have, but they are still willing to strain their mental and physical stability for the sake of class rank.
“I’ve watched students sign up for courses they’re not even interested in, but they take it because if they don’t, they know it will affect their class rank,” Ms. Shroyer said. “It’s detrimental to their emotional health.”
While more scholarships are available to higher-ranking students, many colleges and universities realize that class rank does not say much about a student’s college-readiness. Only 14% of colleges in 2014 considered the class rank of incoming freshmen of “considerable importance,” according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The most important factor in considering college admission was grades in advanced placement classes.
An estimated 30% of Snider upperclassmen take advanced placement courses and tests. All students in the junior and senior top ten at Snider take at least two advanced placement classes each. While a student with straight As in honors or academic classes will still have an honorable class rank, they will likely not be in the top ten.
Ms. Shroyer said FWCS is probably not going to change the way they name valedictorians, but she likes the idea of a system employed by many high schools across the country where students who achieve a certain GPA are honored as valedictorians.
Eckelbarger liked the method Washington’s Roosevelt High School used to choose valedictorians, as described in The Seattle Times. The principal, a counselor and a teacher from each department nominated one student each. Every nominated student was required to have straight As and challenging courses on their transcript, and their community service and school involvement would be taken into account. All nominated students were given a list of other students chosen and they voted on the top three students, excluding themselves, that were most deserving of the valedictorian title. The winner of the vote was valedictorian and the other students shared the title of salutatorian.
“I wish they took extracurriculars into account,” Eckelbarger said, “because if they did, I would be the valedictorian.”
Dublin Coffman High School’s 96 valedictorians seems excessive and unfair to students who try their hardest to achieve the honor, but naming only one out of a large graduating class also has some problems.
“Their only focus is that number, that’s their world right now,” Ms. Shroyer said. “The effort [they’re] putting into that could be so much better spent.”
Ms. Shroyer believes being well-rounded is more important than being valedictorian. If the school wants to encourage students to seek out their interests and to be involved, maybe they should consider putting less pressure on academics. While academics are the most important part of school, they should not be the most stressful part of a student’s life.
“I do blame adults for the pressure being put on students to be number one,” Ms. Shroyer said. “Just because your child isn’t in the top ten does not mean they’re a failure.”
The differences in GPA of high-ranking students change every year, so it would be difficult to set a rule in place mandating the way GPA differences would affect the naming of a valedictorian. There are; however, other practices that can be implemented to fairly determine how to name valedictorians.
Snider has a student population of approximately 1,800. Out of those students, only four are likely to be a valedictorian. Instead of watching students push themselves to the limit just to be the top student, perhaps we should adopt a system similar to that used by Roosevelt High School, but instead of taking nominations from teachers, we should take students already in the top ten. Having the top five students vote on the most deserving student of the title of valedictorian and having the other four share the title of salutatorian would be a fair system that results in one valedictorian and less stress for students.