Who’s No. 1 in the class? Does anyone care? 

Some schools move away from naming valedictorians and salutatorians

The value of valedictorian and salutatorian honors has been in the news after several schools in Ohio announced they were breaking with the tradition for the sake of student well-being.

Many private schools around the country already shun class rankings, avoiding the increasing conflict over which students deserve the No. 1 and 2 spots. That was once a straightforward calculation when all teens took the same classes, but much harder today with dual enrollment, online learning and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. 

Class rank conflicts have erupted in DeKalb, Cherokee and Gainesville over the last few years, in part because of how and which courses get a GPA boost. One of the local valedictorian flareups traced back to high school credits earned in middle school.

As we recently discussed on the blog, you can expect fierce debate when you ask whether more weight ought to be given to AP and IB classes or dual enrollment ones. 

From my experience, high school teachers argue for higher weighting of AP/IB in which there are challenging standardized tests.

Students tell me dual enrollment classes are not as demanding as AP or IB, often because the college courses are entry-level. (Students also report their online classes ask less of them than those in their brick and mortar schools.)

That hasn’t stopped Georgia from promoting dual enrollment and amending the law so dual-enrolled students can qualify for valedictorian and salutatorian, even if they haven’t taken classes at the high school. Lakeside’s 2018 valedictorian never attended the DeKalb high school and did not come to graduation to give the traditional class address.

The state intensified the class rank debate by attaching enticing prizes to being No. 1 and 2 in a high school graduating class, including the Zell Miller Scholarship and automatic admission to the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech

Nationally, there’s been a lot of reaction to the decision by a large suburban Cincinnati high school to abandon valedictorian and salutatorian honors.

A top-ranked school, Mason High will now follow the college honors approach with cum laude (3.51 to 3.74 GPA), magna cum laude (3.75-3.99) and summa cum laude (4.00 and above, as high-level classes offer weights above 4.0).

The district announcement appeared on the Mason City Schools Facebook page: 

Beginning with the Class of 2020, Mason High School students will no longer vie for valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions. After a year-long study and focus groups with students, staff, and families, MHS officials made the announcement as part of an effort to improve students’ mental wellness.

Many people applauded the change, pointing to what 2016 Mason High School valedictorian Alvin Zhang said in his graduation speech:

If I had the opportunity to go through high school again - I wouldn’t take it. But if I were absolutely forced to do it over, I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to become valedictorian. I regret spending the countless hours locked up in my room doing homework, enduring tireless nights of reading an entire chapter from APUSH and possibly, this speech. I truly wish I could replace all that time with meeting more people and making new friends, doing more community service, discovering passions, and basically doing anything that would make me happier than studying just for a better grade.


About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.