Over the years, I have received about a dozen calls from parents upset over how their schools determine valedictorian. Most calls were about decisions by the schools to stop weighting honors courses, which sometimes meant a child was losing the top spot to a classmate who did not take as demanding a course load, at least according to the parent on the phone with me.
And I have heard from a few students who lamented similar policy changes that they said cost them the valedictorian honors.
In this Cherokee dispute over the Etowah High School valedictorian, it again comes down to policy. I am baffled why anyone on this blog is ascribing any motives or wrongdoing to the two students. They are blameless. They did exactly what we want students to do — work hard and excel.
Nor do I blame the private school parents who enrolled their daughter at Etowah to take advantage of a college program. If the parents live in the county, they are paying taxes for the school and have the right to enroll their child, for whatever purpose. I don’t see how what they did is unethical. They wanted the best for their daughter and it wasn’t at anyone else’s expense. They surely didn’t foresee this valedictorian conflict. (I can’t believe any parent would willingly walk into this mess.)
The problem is that the valedictorian policy in Cherokee — and most places — speaks to students who are enrolled in the school rather than who attend, a small distinction that looms larger in this new era of virtual classes and early college options.
One solution to disputes over who’s ranked first in the class is to drop class rankings, which has been done by many private schools around the country and is now spreading to public schools.
The practice began in high achieving schools where students with 3.7 averages were ending up with low class rankings that hurt them in the college admissions process. These top high schools said their students were being hurt in comparisons with students from less-competitive high schools where landing in the top 15 percent was not as difficult.
Without a class ranking on a student’s transcript, the high schools maintain that colleges have to dig deeper in their evaluations, drilling down to the student’s test scores, the rigor of their classes and their essays.
A Time magazine story reported on the decision last year of the top-notch Naperville, IL., district to eliminate rankings:
The rankings will be phased out over the next year, with 2007’s upperclassmen deciding whether to include such a rank in their official transcripts. By no longer ranking students, the Naperville School District 203 is squarely in line with a trend that is fast sweeping the nation, as more and more private and public schools are dropping the practice. The goal, proponents say, is to cut down on the hyper-competition and lessen the stress at such a critical learning point and maturation curve in kids’ lives.
“It’s a high bar we set, and it should be,” said Naperville Superintendent Alan Leis. “But there needs to be more than wrestling over who’s better than who.” Class rankings, a tradition at many schools, have long helped universities and colleges — especially the Harvards and Princetons of the world — weed out the weak students from the strong, the ones with not only promise but the ambition to excel and meet the rigors of higher education.
Some 80% or more public schools still report rankings to inquiring universities and colleges, but a growing number of high schools in the Chicago area and around the country — in mostly affluent districts from California to Miami to New Jersey — have already adopted the practice. A much higher number of private schools do not share their rankings, including some independent schools in Chicago that, for example, have cum laude societies that recognize the top 10% of a class but choose to allow the student body — not GPA — dictate who speaks at graduation. Even in Naperville, a valedictorian is still expected to address the class, but that honor is not chosen until the last weeks of a school year and is not forwarded on to schools in official transcripts.
Students and their parents increasingly fight over who gets to be number one, and the damage that can be done — both academically and psychologically — to those who lose out far trumps the benefits of the glory attached to such titles, according to Dr. Scott Hunter, a clinical psychologist and school consultant at the University of Chicago Hospitals who specializes in pediatric neuropsychology.”The reality is that we have made in the last 10 years more of rank than it deserves because some kids don’t really shine until they enter into adulthood, and they risk being ignored by the very places and people where they could greatly succeed,” adds Hunter.”This is an artificial number in terms of where a person really falls.”
“It makes it a little more opaque for us on the admissions side, but we fully understand it,” said Jim Miller, director of admissions at Brown University. “It’s conceivable a student could get a B in gym and get knocked down 40 places in rank. So we’re getting more used to it, and probably half our applicants now come from schools that don’t have rank. You just have to ascertain, through student profiles and other means, the strength of a schedule and student performance relative to other students.”
I am not a fan of class rankings only because there are students who push themselves to take the tougher courses even though they might get a B instead of a guaranteed A in a less taxing class. The classes a student chooses can play a role in their GPA, which means we aren’t judging all students on the same basis.
Any other ideas?
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog