Schools move away from valedictorian designations

High school class rank worthwhile? Yes, say many in metro Atlanta

Local districts stick with valedictorian, salutatorian titles

With graduation season in full swing, the perennial debate about class ranking has come around again, with an Ohio school district abolishing “valedictorian” and “salutatorian” for the sake of students’ mental health.

In the Peach State, though, it’s clear the titles are here to stay. No metro Atlanta school district said it had considered doing away with them.

“Calculating class rank is a time-honored practice that this community continues to appreciate,” said Gwinnett County Public Schools spokesman Bernard Watson. “It also is helpful for students when applying for college admissions and scholarships.”

Readers’ responses when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked them about doing away with the first- and second-place distinctions show that many believe the titles can influence future success.

On your resume, “It could be the difference between you and someone else with similar qualifications,” one said. Another noted there’s nothing wrong with striving for the best and achieving it.

“I think it’s very important to reward top students. I was a salutatorian myself. It meant the world to me, and helped me get my first professional job,” wrote Susan Campbell, a mother of five children in Fulton County schools.

Immediate perks for Georgia valedictorians or salutatorians include the Zell Miller college scholarship and automatic admission to the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

One long-standing part of the argument has been how to measure who really deserves the class titles, in light of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses that can offer higher grade-point credit, and dual-enrollment classes that high school students can take for college credit, sometimes outside the high school itself.

Last year’s valedictorian from Lakeside High School never attended class at the DeKalb school and did not come to graduation to give the traditional class address. Many classmates said they didn’t know who she was. The Cherokee County School System re-evaluated how it calculates grade point averages in 2011 when a valedictorian had mainly taken classes at the University of West Georgia.

Campbell acknowledged that quandary, adding: “How do you compare students when some take AP classes, some take dual enrollment, some take many or even all courses virtually? There are kids registered as students of a high school who never actually take a class there. Do they get to be valedictorian? Is it fair to NOT make them valedictorian when they were the best?”

That seemed to be the sticking point for many AJC readers who said the system isn’t fair.

“Last year my school had eight IB valedictorians. … All they had to do was get all As in all their required courses for four years. I also got all As in all my required courses for four years, but I took seven extra online classes in things like German, Latin, and driver’s ed because I was actually interested, despite the fact that these classes were not weighted and I knew they would bring my GPA down.”

Gwinnett adds 10 points to all Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate final course grades, said Watson. “All dual enrollment grades are entered as they are reported from the colleges. Rank in class is determined by Numeric GPA, which is calculated out to the thousandth place, making the likelihood of a tie extremely rare.”

Melanie L. Manley, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Douglas County Schools, said it also “has clearly defined procedures and calculations to take into consideration dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, Honors and International Baccalaureate. In case of a tie for valedictorian or salutatorian, scores on the SAT and/or ACT are used to break the tie.”

Earning the top high school class ranking doesn’t guarantee how life goes later, of course.

Last year The Boston Globe looked up valedictorians from 2005, 2006 and 2007. Of the 90 from Boston and 65 from elsewhere in Massachusetts, one in four failed to get a bachelor’s degree in six years, 40% were making less than $50,000 a year, 25% percent had said they wanted to be doctors but none had a medical degree and four of them had experienced homelessness sometime after graduation.

Some, like Bobby Dodd, principal of an Ohio high school eliminating the titles, argue the cost of pursuing them can be too high. When leaders sought feedback on his school’s atmosphere, he said, “A large part of these discussions included the highly competitive culture and the impact student course loads have on stress and anxiety levels.” His superintendent even cited rising teen suicide rates as a reason for the change. That district is replacing “valedictorian” and “salutatorian” with honors similar to those in college: summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude.

Adam Lux, a recent graduate of Gwinnett’s Parkview High School who was proud of his accomplishments even though he didn’t achieve either top spot, said, “I definitely wouldn’t consider it the end all be all.

“From the point of view of an honor roll student with a class rank of 46 out of 644, I think that the percentile of your class rank speaks volumes as to your level of commitment to your education (top 1%, 10%, 25%, etc.),” Lux wrote. But, “I’m friends with both the valedictorian and salutatorian from my school, and they both have different strengths and personalities, along with the 600-plus other students in my class. Ranking students exclusively by GPA shows commitment to milking the system for every possible point to end up on top, but ignores the hundreds of other students who are just as committed to their education.”

The 2016 valedictorian of a school in the Ohio district expressed a little regret that he focused more on grades than enjoying his senior year:

“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,” said Alvin Zhang. “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.”

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