In a stint as a field day volunteer at my children’s elementary school, I was assigned parachute play in which children held the edges of a giant colorful canvas and then ran under the chute.
A little boy who had already conquered the potato sack races, relays and hurdles eyed the parachute game with skepticism before asking, “How do you win?”
When I explained that the goal wasn’t to win but to have fun, he complained, “It’s not fun if there’s no winner.”
That seems to be a prevailing attitude in public education where we have always ranked students, and now, in the new age of accountability, rank teachers and schools. Teachers in Georgia are about to earn effective or ineffective rankings, as part of the state’s Race to the Top grant.
Colleges have a long history of public rankings and, concomitantly, of inflating their credentials to rise higher in those rankings.
But there is probably no ranking more controversial than class rankings, which is why many private schools have eliminated them. The bid to be No. 1 in a graduating class — a status that brings not only acclaim, but scholarships, including the Zell Miller — can spark bitter battles, as occurred last year in Cherokee County and this year in Gainesville.
The problem is that high school class rankings are simple summations of what are now complex equations. Figuring out the No. 1 student didn’t require a forensic audit when all students took the same college prep courses at the same time.
But today students earn high school credits in middle school, online and through dual enrollment. Grades have weightings attached because schools may add more points to an A or B in classes deemed more rigorous and challenging, such as honors or Advanced Placement courses.
Sometimes, students can be enrolled at a high school and yet never have attended a day of classes there, which set off a firestorm at Etowah High School last year. 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 outcome was a policy change to recognize two valedictorians.)
Determining the valedictorian can become so nuanced that it requires outside expertise, which is what Gainesville did when faced with an anomaly, asking a college professor to review its calculations.
Gainesville High had two students, classmates since kindergarten, vying for the No. 1 slot. One student had 36 credit units and all A’s. The other had 31.5 credits and one B. Intuition would suggest the first student would emerge No. 1, but it was the second student who ended up with the higher GPA by less than one-hundredth of a point.
Why? Because the first student had high school credits from middle school, and those grades were not weighted. The other student had taken more weighted classes while in high school and thus prevailed.
As peculiar as this situation sounds, it is apparently not unusual. While talking to newsroom colleagues about this story, one announced that he lost the valedictorian spot at his north Georgia high school under the exact same circumstances. (He says he got over it.)
Gainesville High’s solution to name co-valedictorians did not appease the mother of the student with the higher GPA. She argued that the policy called for the student with the highest GPA to be valedictorian and that was unarguably her son. The other boy decided to bow out, but allegations of racism continue.
The student with the higher GPA is African-American and will be Gainesville High’s first black valedictorian, so the decision held historic significance for the community.
The saga has left Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer believing that the Latin honors system favored by private schools, in which groups of students earn levels of distinction such as cum laude and magna and summa cum laude, is fairer.
The arms race for the valedictorian title has caused students to shun honor arts classes because those classes aren’t weighted as highly, she said, adding, “For the last 10 years, each year, except one, there has been contention around the valedictorian because students came to their senior year with quite a different number of course credits.”
“The cum laude system would not be dependent on everyone having the same number of courses,” said Dyer, “and it would recognize all the students who worked hard to get their GPAs that high.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog