Parenting

Valedictorian: A Rank of the Past — In Half of American High Schools

Photo of Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski of Brush & Nib studio. Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom.

About half of America’s high schools no longer report class rank, endangering the coveted title of valedictorian, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Ranking students from “number one” on down has been declining in the past decade, with schools instead opting for assigning honors to students above a certain threshold. This changes how colleges run their admissions processes, as well.

“More and more schools are moving toward a more holistic process,” Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, told the AP. Colleges and universities “look deeper into the transcript,” focusing more on students’ grades and their choices to take hard classes, rather than the older, simpler class rank system.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals announced that roughly one half of U.S. high schools no longer report class rank. Association spokesman Bob Farrace told the AP that administrators worry a simple numerical class rank could hurt the college prospects of great students.

At a school with many high-performing kids, the difference between rank 1 and rank 55 might be a matter of a 4.0 verses a 3.75 grade-point average (GPA), for instance. If every student is expected to meet high expectations, class rank could do more harm than good.

Then again, the opposite might also be the case. Tennessee’s Rutherford County schools gave the valedictorian title to each student who achieves a 4.0 GPA and takes at least 12 honors courses. The district’s Central Magnet School had no less than 48 valedictorians this year, about one-fourth of the graduating class. This changes the very meaning of valedictorian. No longer does it mark “the best student,” but it stands as more of a general description for a set of excellent students.

Lancaster High School in suburban Buffalo is reportedly considering the change from class rank to Latin honors, as are more typically awarded in college: summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude (which simply mean “with highest honors,” “with great honors,” and “with honors” in Latin).

With the switch would come decreased competition and more collaboration, some argue. “You’re striving for that [honor] personally, but you’re not hoping that you’re better than these other 400 people next to you,” Connor Carrow, a 17-year-old graduating senior at Lancaster High, told the AP.

Traditionally, the top ten seniors are awarded at an annual banquet. Carrow, who served as student union president and played varsity lacrosse and hockey, barely failed the cut, coming in at number 14.

Daniel Buscaglia, the valedictorian at Lancaster High, who played saxophone and volunteered in his town’s youth bureau, told the AP that such competition was healthy, and has better prepared him to succeed at Cornell University in the fall.

AP reporter Carolyn Thompson appeared rather disdainful of this view, reporting that “commenters have peppered news websites with disparaging comparisons to giving ‘participation trophies’ to avoid hurt feelings.” Competition for better grades and rank may be unnecessary, but it can also drive students to succeed. There is more than one side to this story.

While competition may help students, Thompson rightly cited opponents of the ranking system, who “point out the often statistically insignificant differences that separate students.” The best argument against rank isn’t emotional but practical — student number 55 at one school may be a better student than number 1 at another school, and may only fall short of number 1 at his or her own school by a couple As and Bs.

Nevertheless, Thompson’s article seemed to emphasize the emotional argument over the practical one.

“We are encouraged by any movement that helps students understand that they’re more than a score, that they’re more than a rank,” Dana Monogue, assistant superintendent at Wisconsin’s Elmbrook School District, told the AP. Her district only awards valedictorian and salutatorian, to help the top two receive a state scholarship.

A distressed Maryland mother told the AP, “It has such an impact on them as to how they perceive themselves if you’re putting rankings on them.”

Parents and teachers need to be clear that a student’s worth and dignity is not determined by his or her grades or class rank. This is Parenting and Teaching 101. But class ranks can encourage healthy competition, and that can be an excellent motivator to academic success, especially for boys.

While many high schools have rejected number rankings, they still play an important part in college admissions. Top-ranked students receive larger scholarships. College rankings include the number of top-ranked students who attend each school. Many college applications still ask for class rank if available.

Raising and educating children are difficult challenges. Some kids may find motivation to succeed in knowing they will be ranked. Others may be demoralized by such a system. With or without class rankings, the same challenge remains: how do parents and teachers spur children on to knowledge and maturity without encouraging the kids who fall behind to lose their motivation and sense of dignity?