The arms race for top spots in high school: Did we create a monster?

Who is No. 1 in high school graduating classes? Should we care? (AJC/file photo)

Who is No. 1 in high school graduating classes? Should we care? (AJC/file photo)

The AJC has a story today on a trend that I wrote about here a few months ago: Schools moving away from class rankings and from naming valedictorians and salutatorians to avoid what has become an arms race for the titles.

Eliminating public rankings, something many private schools already do, lessens the competition in top high schools where kids are vying for the most competitive colleges. High schools that have made that choice contend that college admissions officers have to look more closely at applicants’ test scores, the rigor of their classes and their essays when there are no class ranking on high school transcripts.

The story revisits the controversy at Etowah High School where the top slot was going to a student who had never attended the high school. A private school student enrolled at Etowah to access an early college option offered to public school students. Because college grades earn higher points on the GPA, the private school student edged out an Etowah student who has been tops in her class since the ninth grade.

The prospect of Etowah’s valedictorian being a student who never stepped foot in the building or attended classes there led to protests, a Facebook campaign and petitions. But Cherokee board policy called for the young woman in college  to be recognized as valedictorian. However, the board realized that this was a tough situation and created a waiver so there can be more than one top student.

The news story references a larger issued raised by this mess: Should  high school students in college classes deserve more points for their grades. (A former Cherokee valedictorian says “no” in this piece.)

Take a look at the article, which has several good comments. Among them:

Nancy McDuff, associate vice president of admissions and enrollment at UGA, said there is no norm for calculating the honor.

“I think there are almost as many ways to calculate a valedictorian and salutatorian as there are high schools in the state,” she said. “Some only consider courses taken at the high school. Some give higher weight to Advanced Placement or honors courses. There are lots of different ways to do it.”

Danny Cook, a computer science student at Georgia Tech and 2009 valedictorian at Gwinnett County’s Collins Hill High School, said he’s definitely seen students “gaming the system” in their quest to be school valedictorian.

“Back when I was in high school, students would take AP level classes to try to gain an edge because of additional grade weighting, some to the point that students would switch to schools that offered more AP classes, just so they would be able to transfer the credits back to gain an edge in the running for valedictorian,” he said. “Just this past year, I had a close friend who had to fight very hard for his spot, because the student in second place took an additional AP class online in order to try to gain the edge.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

38 comments Add your comment

William Casey

May 24th, 2011
8:47 am

I was defeated in my quest for a lofty ranking in my college class forty years ago by a sweet “energizer bunny” woman. Lost fair and square. Making up for it by dating her today. LOL

Seriously, there is way too much “gaming the system” as well as downright neurotic behavior in this struggle to be #1. I’m all for competition and honoring achievement but enough is enough.

Dr NO

May 24th, 2011
9:00 am

Why not just make everyone a valedictorian just as society mandates. Its not enough for those who earn and deserve recognition. We now have to recognize those who attend class 75% of the time.

After all we are on the same team.

BAH!

teacher&mom

May 24th, 2011
9:12 am

Oh the tangled webs we weave…….

bob leblah

May 24th, 2011
9:15 am

I think we are focusing too much time on this issue. In the Etowah case, too bad. The transferring student didn’t break any rules. She was using the system like everyone else was, to push herself ahead. If it had been a student that moved into the district, should they be disqualified because they hadn’t attended the great Etowah HS for 4 years? Listen, that title means something very different from one school to another. People need to get over it. Should we have two homecoming queens if an extremely attractive female moves into a school her senior year and unseats the incumbent beauty? ;)

Mom

May 24th, 2011
9:36 am

William Casey “Seriously, there is way too much “gaming the system” as well as downright neurotic behavior in this struggle to be #1.” There probably is. However in the case of Kelly McCahill she was never trying to “game the system” or pursue “neurotic behavior in a struggle to be #1″. I know this because I am her mother. She pursued a program she learned about at a Cherokee county public school in 7th grade. She simply became the victim of a great deal of negative media attention and assumptions because of the policy set by the school board. She is a normal 17 year old girl with feelings. Now because of jealous, angry people she gets nasty looks when she goes anywhere near her home. She has been threatened to be booed off stage if she speaks at graduation, and is the butt of too many to count nasty facebook posts. All this because she chose a program that suited her and she excelled at it. How would any parent like that for their child? Everyone seems so caught up in titles and scholarships but Kelly is a PERSON, a CHILD, I wish a little emphasis could be placed on that.

Atlanta mom

May 24th, 2011
9:48 am

Being Val or Sal in high school is a lot like being popular. Once you walk out those doors after graduation—who cares? Assuming these Vals and Sals are going to elite schools (or GT for that matter), it is considered bad form to declare your class rank or your SAT score or how many APs you took. And I just don’t believe that you can’t get into an elite school because you are number 3.

catlady

May 24th, 2011
10:03 am

It’s like having a PhD. It is not mentioned; it is just assumed that everyone has one (and with all these diploma mills, it might soon be true!)

catlady

May 24th, 2011
10:07 am

Most colleges have a requirement for a certain numbers of semesters on campus. Even if you transfer in as a summa from some other place, your diploma will not reflect it unless you have x number of hours from the university (I think it was 6 semesters on campus–easier today because more students are taking longer to graduate.) I finished college in less than 3 years by taking overloads (no AP back then) but the college I finished at refused to record my magma cum laude because I had been at another university for all but 4 semesters. However, no one has asked me about it since then. Thanks for listening.

AJinCobb

May 24th, 2011
10:08 am

It seems unfortunate that extreme competition for the top couple of spots may lead to all class ranking information being dropped. My kid is in the top 10 but not the top 5. He’s not motivated to enter the Val/Sal competition but he does like knowing about where he stands, compared with the many other good students in his class.

Get real

May 24th, 2011
10:23 am

The dual-enrolled student should be the Val. Because of the demand for the HOPE, high schools have to give away grades. As a result, there is NO WAY the high school class is on par with the college class. If you can make an A in the college course, you are the stronger student. If the high school student A-getter does not like that, then dual enroll.

Carolyn

May 24th, 2011
10:24 am

Fortunately, high school is not the pinnacle of one’s life. I’m hopeful that the young people mentioned in the articles will continue their efforts and high standards in their college studies and will be successful. But–your rank in your high school class matters so very little after high school.

Now, if you can make Phi Beta Kappa in college–that’s impressive!

Write Your Board Members

May 24th, 2011
10:36 am

I do think that kids benefit from having lofty goals. I think the best schools are those with bunches of kids who aim high.

William Casey

May 24th, 2011
10:36 am

@MOM: I wasn’t referencing your daughter but rather what I observed during my 31 years in public and private schools. I believe that the ranking system causes many otherwise rational parents and students to lose sight of the most important things in life. I seriously doubt that my life and career would have been much different had I moved up a couple of spots in the high school and college rankings.

Warrior Woman

May 24th, 2011
10:46 am

@Get Real – AP courses in high schools are often MUCH harder than the college course counterparts.

Inman Park

May 24th, 2011
10:53 am

As someone who as been a high school administrator for almost fifteen years I have always been queasy about adding ectra points (to the GPA or to the final grade) just because a student may have taken an “Honors” or an AP class. The argument the student (and his parents) make is that the Honors/AP class is “harder” than the regular college prep class everyone else takes, but my response to that “so what”? The student freely chooses to take the Honors/AP class; no one is forcing him/her to do so. College admissions personnel are smart enough to look at a transcript and assess the rigor of the coursework taken (the transcript clearly has an “H” or “AP listed by the course name). So, I am all for doing away with class rankings and NOT giving “extra credit” simply based on the rigor of the course.

frustrated parent

May 24th, 2011
10:53 am

It has become a business. Now with the legislature giving the Hope to the top two in the school, we will see more of this. Perhaps divide the honors – val/sal for those who actually attend classes at the school building and val/sal for those who have been dual enrolled. I’m having difficulty understanding how an honor from a school that you don’t attend or have a connection to the student body can mean anything – other than the monetary compensation that accompanies the title????

Mom

May 24th, 2011
10:53 am

@William Casey: I am agreeing with you. I know you weren’t referencing my daughter, (but as a mom I have strong feelings regarding her situation) and I do agree with the fact that too much crazy stuff goes on for the top spots. I also agree that your class rank in high school or college certainly won’t determine the rest of your life. That is why for the most part we have just said no comment to the media.

William Casey

May 24th, 2011
10:55 am

@Carolyn: I agree that high school isn’t the pinnacle of life. I’ll add that college isn’t either. It’s been a long time since I wore any of those liitle gold honor society keys.

Lee

May 24th, 2011
10:56 am

Valedictorian or Salutatorian? That’s one issue I never had to contend with. Mediocracy has it’s advantages… :)

William Casey

May 24th, 2011
11:03 am

@Warrior Woman: AP courses ARE often more difficult than comparable college courses.

catlady

May 24th, 2011
11:26 am

I think any transfer students after 10th grade should be ineligible for val/sal, especially since there is money attached! Oh, yeah, and back in the day you could not get Phi Beta Kappa in college if you transfered in after sophmore year, no matter how great your grades were at the new university.

Lee: we already knew that! :)

catlady

May 24th, 2011
11:31 am

There were 3 of us neck to neck going into senior year–all best friends since 6th grade. Then a new girl “moved” in from a country school with great grades. She was named co-val, but got caught cheating on a final. Parents threatened to sue, she still got to speak. My friends and I graduated 1, 2, 3. I think it was hardest on my mom–she had been valedictorian in high school. But to me, I felt my BF had been cheated, having to share the valedictory with her.

the prof

May 24th, 2011
12:18 pm

@catlady….I’m most certain you meant EdD instead of PhD, since they are absolutely not comparable….

myboysmom

May 24th, 2011
12:26 pm

@catlady. I usually agree with you but not so sure about this one. I was a transfer student between my junior and senior year, from Savannah to an Alabama School. It was not my choice, therefore I am not sure I agree with that. I did graduate in the top 10% of my class in Alabama, and yes I bumped down one student, but they included both of us.

KMHSmom

May 24th, 2011
12:29 pm

No matter what system is set up, it will be “gamed”. That is human nature. And no matter how we try to set up rules to regulate “fairness” in the process of calculating val/sal, there will be unintended consequences, with both positive and negative results. I am in the “get over it – life is not fair” camp. However, I do not agree with eliminating class ranking. Students need intrinsic rewards to strive for their best. Some may respond to the val/sal race; others may want to finish in the top 10 or top 10%. In any aspect of life, someone finishes first. Let the kids learn to deal with it – and learn that it does not mean the end of the world.

another comment

May 24th, 2011
1:01 pm

The whole way awards are given out in high school are out of wack as well. You are correct that many Private School’s such as Marist don’t list the rankings on transcripts. But we went to a graduation party on Saturday, and everyone sure knew the top 4 in the class were all females and the highest GPA was 4.4. So they still knew there class rankings. It just wasn’t given out because when you pay $16K plus a year there are too many 3.8 and 3.9 GPA you don’t want to be 50/100 with that GPA going to a college. Our three friends boys all got full hope and in to Tech. The boy told us he had at least 7 friends going to Georgia on Full Hope.

At the Marist Graduation you saw the diploma with Honors, the Honor roll for every semester, JV, and Varsity Letters.

Now at my daughters Public High School, you have all this damn gaming with ranking. You have on level classes that kids sleep through, are stoned, don’t come 90% of the time. My child has taken a few Mandatory ones like health and gotten a 100 or A in those, helped the teacher out. Sure my child could take all these and get a 4.0 but she wouldn’t learn anything. Honors courses and Pre IB in our county don’t earn and extra credit in our county in 9th grade, but you can end up with much lower grades than the easy A. Then the Honors classes only earn .5 and the AP and IB earn .1 but they are no quaranteed A, they are hard work, expecially when you have a schedule of all classes like this. What if you are also on Varsity sports and have a job. Then add to that have a chronic illness.

In the public school my daughter goes to they have not had any Honor Roll, she had a 4.5 one semester. She even had a 3.0 for the semster she missed 7 weeks due to illness. All she has received for each semester is a Student Athelete award, which is awarded for participating in a Varsity/JV sport team and for having a 3.0 grade point average or above she has received that 4/4 semester so far. What is more important in Ga. Public schools Sports.

Being #1 does have huge implications, My sister’s son is graduation #1 from his upstate NY High School, he has won a full scholarship to NYU’s campus in the UAE., My Brother’s daughter graduated #3 in her high school class in the Upstate NY High School in the District next door she did not get any scholarships. My brother came to my parents trying to borrow money for college for her, they said no. She has been working full time while going to school, she is on her 8th year of a 4yr degree, yes she has a 3.9 GPA. But no free ride, like she would have at No. 1.

bob leblah

May 24th, 2011
1:25 pm

another comment — it is not likely your niece didn’t get a scholarship by being #3 versus #1. There are too many variables there to conclude that. High schools are not made the same and colleges don’t evaluate them the same. A 3.9 GPA in one place is far different from a 3.9 somewhere else.

Atlanta Mom

May 24th, 2011
1:38 pm

Thank you bob.

actually, she's right

May 24th, 2011
2:36 pm

You can read any of several books written by admissions counselors and admissions committee members such as Admissions Confidential, and you’ll see that being #2 is an order of magnitude less attractive than being #1 for elite schools. Admissions office assigns so many points for various qualifications – valedictorian, GPA threshold at 4.2, perfect or near perfect SAT, lettering in varsity sports, first in family to attend college, first generation American, legacy, etc. – then add up the points across the categories. Yes, there are lots of factors, including an interesting back story (elite schools seem to love stories of overcoming adversity, such as carrying five orphaned siblings out of a wartorn African nation – seriously, I saw this on the home page of a local major university in touting its outstanding students), but according to the books, only valedictorian counts in this matrix calculation of entry points. Needless to say, you have to get in before you can be considered for a scholarship, so if you aren’t #1, you aren’t just #2, you may not even be on the list at all as far as the schools are concerned.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t an achievement, but the doors open much wider for #1 than #2, #3 or so on. If you wanted to game the system, you’d put your child in the best possible school for three years, then transfer the last year to a school where he or she can be first. Hence, the interest in setting residency requirements to set the number of classes or years that have to be completed at that school. The only drawback is that it would be more difficult to have letters of reference from the school counselor be an accurate picture of the student’s high school career.

another comment

May 24th, 2011
3:45 pm

My Brother’s Daughter that was ranked #3 graduated from a High School that was actually ranked higher on the NewsWeek top high Schools, then the High School next door that My Sister’s Son Graduated #1.

My Brother’s Daughter had published a book of Poetry and won a Poetry contest when they lived in South Carolina when she was in Elementary School. Neither of her parents ever graduated from college. My brother dropped out after a semester or two, but is a Union Printer that probably makes more than most teachers.

My Sister’s Son was also the Class President in addition to being the Valdictorian of his Class. My Brother-in-law is a Family Practice Doctor in a small town within 3 miles of where both my siblings live. My sister has an education degree she has never used. This is their third of four sons. The oldest just graduated from North Eastern, one is a Junior at SCAD in Savannah.

The high schools are virtually interchangeable suburban schools. In New York and most of New England, the midwest the school districts are small 1-2 high school districts, divided by the Townships. A much better set up for local control and dealing with the needs of the community. The dollars stay local.

justin

May 24th, 2011
8:25 pm

I just don’t get what the big deal here. It’s just a high school honor. Once you graduate from college, nobody cares.

East Cobb Parent

May 24th, 2011
8:52 pm

Well if we are doing away with rankings then I say take it all the way, let’s not rank sports, no scores in high school games, no times for track.
Trust me, the private schools don’t post a ranking but it is done. My daughter’s school doesn’t list the kids by rank, but they do name the valedictorian. Even with all the BS in the pubic MS, the kids knew who had all AC, who had on level and who had a mixture. As my son told me after his first soccer game, there was no official score but the kids knew – we lost .

[...] Read more here: The arms race for top spots in high school: Did we create a … [...]

David Sims

May 25th, 2011
3:18 pm

I wasn’t my high school valedictorian. I was the STAR student, though. No clever gaming tricks for me. No easy bake-a-cake courses, either. Just the core curriculum, college prep, independent studies, and all the math and science my teachers could teach me.

Joyce

May 25th, 2011
4:20 pm

Give the girl a break! It does not matter if she transferred in or not. If she has the better grades and scored well on the SAT well she is in the running. We have often used the SAT as a tie-breaker when the averages were identical. What about the student who after 11th grade goes to one of the State Academies, In other words they are so smart, they have been at one of the Academies their entire 12th grade year should they be disqualified from being the V.or S. I do not think so!.

Joyce

May 25th, 2011
4:25 pm

And, by the way, the top students are usually not the ones who are always successful in college. Oh, sure they study and make the grades, but where are they later. I have found it is the C plus and B students who are the ones dedicated to becoming successful in their careers who have the success in life.

Looking for real learning

May 26th, 2011
8:53 am

There is significant research to support the notion that fierce competition in school, including “rankings”, will erode students’ interest in learning and taking risks. It encourages cheating and “studying for the grade” . My daughter attended a private school through 8th grade which de-emphasized grades and had no class rankings. Now she attends a high-performing public school, and every report about the school’s “success” focuses on how many points the SAT has gone up, etc. A student can be eligible for the National Honor Society, which requires a 90+ average, and still not be “ranked” in the top 25% of the class. If a college wants to look at a student’s class rank at this school, when more than one fourth of the class could qualify for NHS, does it say anything really meaningful?

I am sick of hearing everything about a school’s “success” equated to a 5-point rise in the average SAT score, when drugs and alcohol are rampant and kids have very little opportunity to have a relationship with their teachers (for many reasons). I am not quite in the camp that advocates doing away with grades altogether, but the time to give up rankings is way overdue.

Susan Nolen’s study titled “Reasons for Studying: Motivational Orientations and Study Strategies” concluded that students who equate success with surpassing others are more likely to think in a “surface-level” way.

amazed

May 26th, 2011
6:57 pm

The ridiculous part is having arbitrary grades assigned to someone who didn’t even attend the school. She shouldn’t be eligible. You need to compare the same thing. If she wants to be eligible she should attend the same type of classes. She made a different choice.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. People need to learn how to deal with it. That’s the real world.

In my HS people dealt with it in different ways. You had to go the final 2 years to qualify and only those two years counted. I moved in at the beginning of my Jr year and so wasn’t in the initial rankings. Then they discovered their mistake, revised the rankings and I was #2. I understand the girl who was #2 was in tears all day. I never worried or checked my class rank. I just heard from others. The girl who was #1 took several easy courses to pump up her average. She went in crying to the Physics professor when there was a tough test. He gave in and we all got an extra 5 points on the test putting some of us over 100 (she was in a different section-same course). She ended up #1. Someone else who took only easy courses ended up #2 after starting around #5 or #6. I ended up #6-averaging the same 97 in my Sr. year I did in my Jr. year and had a whole lot less stress-the 4 who passed me were all averaging 98-99. Interestingly, they all slacked off the last grading period which didn’t count for class rank. I probably would have moved up 2 or 3 slots if they counted that period. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. #3 took all tough courses-He was also voted most likely to succeed. The students saw what was important and respected his accomplishments far more than #1 or #2.

It was a learning experience even for those who were just observing the race. And the students in the race had to choose what was important to them. Those are choices we make every day.