Pro/con views on ranking students as No. 1: A valedictorian and headmaster disagree

no. 1The print AJC op-ed page has a great pro/con package today on whether schools should name valedictorians.

The pro piece was written by my AJC colleague Shane Blatt, who was his Key West high school’s No. 1 graduate. The con was written by Paul Bianchi, who is headmaster of a school that does not name a valedictorian, the Paideia School.

Here is Shane Blatt’s reasons for keeping the tradition of naming a valedictorian:

This month marks the 20th anniversary since I delivered my valedictory speech before more than 1,000 students, faculty and parents. Under the stadium spotlights on that sweltering night in June ,1992, I touched on themes of personal responsibility and self-sacrifice, of pushing boundaries and never giving up.

Such themes would resonate in today’s troubling times, and if I were the valedictorian of a high school in 2012, perhaps I would deliver the same speech. Only I might not get the chance.

That’s because a small but growing number of schools across the nation, including some in metro Atlanta, are opting not to rank seniors and pick a valedictorian. Some educators believe that jettisoning the distinction eliminates close calls, controversies and, dare I say it, competition.

Is this the lesson we want to teach our nation’s children: That rather than confronting close calls and controversies — such as those last year in Cherokee County and this year in Gainesville — with sound logic and rational policies, we’d rather remove the valedictory distinction altogether? By that logic, should the same hold true for close votes for best actor or actress at the Oscars? The Heisman Trophy in college football?

More concerning, however, is the inane notion that w e should downplay excellence because, as one local educator put it, ranking students and singling out the top achiever have “a depressing effect” on everyone else. Here’s something that’s 
really depressing: students who aren’t prepared for life outside high school.

In college or trade school, students will square off with their peers. They will enter classrooms with perhaps hundreds of other students from all walks of life and intelligence levels, and they will compete for the highest grade, internships or apprenticeships. When they graduate, they will vie yet again for jobs with an even larger pool of peers in an ever-competitive workforce.

But some educators are under the impression that removing incentives to excel will miraculously put the focus back on learning for learning’s sake. Yet, in some schools in metro Atlanta, students are allowed to do makeup work to raise subpar test scores. What’s the incentive to study for the test to begin with if students know they can raise their grade after the fact?

Dr. Meena Shah knows a thing or two about the value of hard work, having raised three children who all became valedictorians of Greater Atlanta Christian School. Asked her thoughts on schools nixing the valedictory distinction, she said: “There’s no reason to stop. It is a healthy competition to recognize somebody who has excelled, with not just a God-given IQ but hard work.”

Here is an excerpt of the opposing view, by Paul Bianchi, headmaster at the Paideia School:

The mechanics of selecting a valedictorian by calculating grade point average (GPA) are arbitrary. Some schools weigh certain courses, such as Advanced Placement, to give extra points in the GPA on the assumption that high grades in such courses are less frequent. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not. Such practices also promote gamesmanship in course selection.

An obsession with GPA ignores the reality that teachers are different in how they evaluate student work, even when the assignments are similar. Mr. Goodfellow is an easy grader. Mr. Stingy is unable to bring himself to write the letter A. Furthermore, the differences in GPA among high-achieving students are often infinitesimal, a hundredth or a thousandth of a point.

Even if these mechanical problems could be fixed, which I do not think is possible, the fundamental question remains: Why have a valedictorian in the first place?  A common, knee-jerk reaction, sometimes spoken in slogans such as “a nation of excellence” or “race to the top,” is the system motivates students to work harder. My experience is such students strive to do well for a variety of reasons. They are rewarded for these efforts.

It is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive to overlay that message with all the distracting intensity of a questionable system that allegedly measures years of achievement in numbers rounded off to three or four decimal points. A common concern among teachers is that many high-achieving students already suffer from an undue amount of stress. Intense stress at any age is unhealthy. It constricts creativity and curiosity. Students become overly cautious, too worried about just the right answer and less able to generate and think about the important questions.

School is not a swim or track meet. Society needs an educated citizenry. The impact of the system that produces a valedictorian is equally wrongheaded for the 99 percent as it is for the 1 percent.

My argument is not a plea for relaxed academic rigor in high schools. We need more rigor, genuine and lasting intellectual challenges that infuse an entire school and motivate all students to do their very best. The competition for class valedictorian and all the hoopla surrounding it fails everyone.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

66 comments Add your comment


June 7th, 2012
11:01 am

I hate when I am not winning. When I see somebody else beating me, I want to catch up and be in front of other drivers on I-285

This also applies to grades and the education system.


June 7th, 2012
11:02 am

Hmmm – I wonder how many of the administrators advocating for the eliminating the recognition of valedictorians WERE valedictorians?

Sour grapes, anyone?


June 7th, 2012
11:24 am

I am voting for sour grapes. His piece is pedestrian at best.

Read the first paragraph. He suggests that it may or may not be harder for a high school senior to get an AP class. He is trying to say that a student taking shop and a student taking college level calculus should have their grades weighted the same?

And how many educated people do you know that use the word ‘wrongheaded” when describing others of differing opinion.

This man is in charge of a school.


June 7th, 2012
11:31 am

The idea we’re preparing kids for the real world by anointing valedictorians is dumb. The real world has multiple paths to success, you can make $100,000 in plumbing, drop out of college and become an entrepreneur, or find happiness as an underpaid teacher. Figuring your best path is not easy when everyone’s screaming you should follow another because that’s the REAL path to success.

The idea that there’s one standard and the kid who games that standard better than anybody else is “superior” is counter to the real world. You’d think the NCLB debacle would have taught us something. Obsessing over scores kills learning. It becomes an end in itself, signifying nothing. The end result is people who can’t think or adjust on their own.

William Casey

June 7th, 2012
11:41 am

Competition built America and can be a powerful force for good. Grade grubbing and gameing the system are bad. Why not compromise and name the top ten (or a %) as Summa Cum Laude graduates without ranking them 1-10? Anyone at that level is clearly a “winner.” In my experience at some pretty good schools (St. Pius, Chattahoochee, Northview) there was seldom a nickel’s worth of difference between #1 and #10 as far as real learning was concerned.

Road Scholar

June 7th, 2012
11:44 am

Well, maybe we should take all sports, debating, cheer leading, activities and clubs out of high schools also. No community involvement.That way we can just focus on learning since these things do not add to the stature,ranking, and knowledge level of the students. What BS! All these are learning experiences as is the GPA and any “competition” it provides. What happens when they are passed over for a promotion later in life…go sulk…threaten to sue…drop out of life. It’s not only what you do with the gifts God gave you, but also how one perseveres through rejection, disappointment, and challenges.

What we should consider doing is to have the person with the lowest GPA acknowledged so that their family can bask in the glory! For those below the top echelon of their class, most don’t care, do not know what a valedictorian is, let alone spell it!


June 7th, 2012
11:48 am

Is he blaming the teachers?? :)


June 7th, 2012
11:50 am

Has there EVER been a valedictorian that went into education? I so, I question the validity of their award.


June 7th, 2012
11:50 am

Aquagirl @11:31
Maybe the anointing of valedictorians doesn’t prepare kids for the real world, but experiencing competition–i.e. winning and losing–does. The $100,000 in plumbing doesn’t happen without outperforming other plumbers. The entrepreneur who drops out of college had better be ready to market a new product or service, or else be ready to out-perform others in the same field. Otherwise look for very lean times.
Can’t argue with the notion of “happiness as an underpaid teacher,” though. If this isn’t an old saying, it should be: “Make a living at something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Road Scholar

June 7th, 2012
11:51 am

If real learning was the goal, then the level of improvement from their freshman entrance tests to their exit exam should be considered. There seems to be no reward for effort, which is sometimes more important than general knowledge. I once had a roommate at Tech that played bridge ALL the time, attended class daily, studied an hour before the test, and had a 3.9 average; he was a Elect Eng major…one of the hardest at Tech at the time.Was he a superior student than one who worked their butt off for a 3.0?


June 7th, 2012
11:54 am

William Casey @11:41

Look for #11 in a lot of schools to raise the biggest ruckus you ever saw. Instead of a fight between a very close #1 and #2, it will be between a very close #10 and #11 for the last Summa Cum Laude spot.


June 7th, 2012
12:02 pm

Once again proof that education experts do nothing but come up with dumb ideas. All of the local school boards could eliminate 90% of the Central Office staff and see education IMPROVE. Stop harassing the teachers & students with these morons.

Ole Guy

June 7th, 2012
12:20 pm

Once again, it’s all about standards…or the lack thereof. When we all compete; perform to a common standard, high achievers should be/need to be recognized. This has not one damn thing to do with self-esteem, destruction of…or any other touchy feely issue. As RATIONAL adults…which high school grads are presumed to be…we look upon others to act as examples of behavior, whether we realize it or not; whether we agree with it or not, we seek the input of others, directly or indirectly, as to our performances.

The primary key, as I have so often advocated, is STANDARDS, more precisely, COMMON STANDARDS. As I have come to observe, neither exists within the realm of public education, so the real question should be…DOES IT REALLY MATTER?


June 7th, 2012
12:29 pm

Participation medals for everyone!!!!!


June 7th, 2012
12:30 pm

As my graduating class Salutatorian, I can say that striving for the top did push me and coming up just a little short stung like hell..and it’s a taste I try never to repeat in life. Losing out on a goal can be more motivating than reaching it, and in the end, that’s what this is all about..motivation to achieve.

Howard Finkelstein

June 7th, 2012
12:32 pm

The Cons are just that, Cons. Instead of a diploma/recognition lets just hand out doggy biscuits.


June 7th, 2012
12:33 pm

The $100,000 in plumbing doesn’t happen without outperforming other plumbers.

True, but even in a narrow field, there’s not one standard for a good plumber. Yes, they need good technical skill. But a plumber who can listen to a customer, speak in entire sentences and do their own math will outperform the guy with better technical skills. The guy who can do all that plus supervise other plumbers, handle business plans and develop a creative niche will own a company.

IMHO the grind for a 4.2335 GPA over another student’s 4.2330 discourages well-rounded general education and students challenging themselves in areas where they’re not as comfortable. Our top students need more leeway, not less.


June 7th, 2012
12:34 pm

Paideia does not give grades until they are forced to, in high school. The school resists categorizing students as academically better or worse, as it is dicey to charge close to $20K per year beginning in kindergarten and then say that other students are “better” than the one each parent is writing a check for.

They do, however, have ‘athlete of the week’ and other competitive recognition such as that.

I agree that the difference between individual students who make up the top 1-3% of any class is tiny, and finding the one with the “best” GPA can often come down to who has gamed the system best. However, I think that recognition for the top academic performers is a good idea.

Maureen Downey

June 7th, 2012
12:42 pm

@Shar, Having covered these val and sal flaps, I think the methodology for determining ranking lags behind the changes in where and how students are getting their course credits. For instance, schools give more points for dual enrollment/college credit, even though most students say an AP high school course is far tougher than a college intro course. Also, there is wide disparity in online courses, and kids could game the system with easy A’s gained through online enrollment or through dodging tough courses/graders in their school.
Not sure there is a certified fair way to determine rankings, which would be my concern about them. There will continue to be battles and even lawsuits over the matter.


June 7th, 2012
12:59 pm

Instead of letting these ‘adult’ administrators make the decision, how about ask the students? Seems to me that a student capable of achieving that goal isn’t going to be broken by coming up just short to someone else.

And trust me, anyone with a 3.5 GPA isn’t going to be make to ‘feel bad’ because someone was named #1 in their class by getting a 4.3.

It seems like the administrators are trying to protect themselves from controversy by their saying it’s for the betterment of the children.

Howard Finkelstein

June 7th, 2012
1:07 pm


June 7th, 2012
12:33 pm

Grasping at straws. Very weak argument, VERY weak. :(

Putting Kids First

June 7th, 2012
1:10 pm

My child attended a school with no rankings, and a school with rankings and a valedictorian. At graduation, the principal announced the GPA of the valedictorian and salutatorian, and it was a ridiculously small difference that means virtually nothing in the real world. I’m sure others have had this experience also, but in my own school experience the valedictorians were not necessarily the high achievers in the game of life. the students in the school with no rankings are more collegial, more supportive of each others’ efforts, and care more about the success of everyone than just themselves.

William Casey

June 7th, 2012
1:16 pm

@Southpaw: you may be right about the fight between #’s 10 & 11 but it just doesn’t have the same bogus cache’ that all the battles between #’s 1 & 2 have had.

I graduated #19 of 396 in high school. Graduated #3 in college class. I didn’t lose any sleep over either but I DO remember.


June 7th, 2012
1:23 pm

Lost some respect for Paideia with this. Actually, if this is indicative of their “leadership” then I pretty much just lost all respect for it.


June 7th, 2012
1:31 pm

Grasping at straws. Very weak argument, VERY weak.

And yet it’s got some points, supporting examples, and a logical thought process even if you disagree with that thought process. If you feel it’s blown away by monosyllabic grunts followed by an emoticon, I gladly cede the argument to you.

Hillbilly D

June 7th, 2012
1:46 pm

Looking back on my high school career, all those decades ago, just proves that you never can tell. Like any other school, we had our can’t miss achievers and our most likely to wind up in prison group. Funny thing though, life didn’t follow the pattern in many cases. Some folks turned out just like you would expect, some far exceeded expectations and others, who seemed to have the world by the tail, never did quite figure out how to be productive humans. To quote a line from an old movie, “There is life after high school”.

My two cents worth

June 7th, 2012
1:47 pm

I am the low income, single parent household mother of two sons. The oldest was salutatorian and the youngest valedictorian. They appreciate the honor while realizing the end of high school is the beginning of the rest of their lives. It’s a tough world out there and you need to toughen up to survive You are going to be competing with the rest of the world for jobs. Sometimes people are hired simply because of how they look or who they know. Schools just need to have a policy in place for the selection process and then stand behind it. It seems the only area we rank #1 these days is in self -esteem and it doesn’t appear to be working very well for us.

John Watson

June 7th, 2012
1:57 pm

nicely played. will you marry me?


June 7th, 2012
2:02 pm

“The real world has multiple paths to success, you can make $100,000 in plumbing…”

According to Joe the Plumber, plumbers make $250K a year. Get it right.


June 7th, 2012
2:17 pm

Just let the students vote on it like the prom king and queen, both carry about the same weight outside of the high school doors.


June 7th, 2012
2:38 pm

When having valedictorians, kids need to make choices. Nothing wrong with starting that early.

Adults do need to have reasonable systems. My HS had a lot of mobility. Only 12 out of 625 grads were even in the same school district all 12 years. To deal with that they only counted the last two years. If you weren’t there the last two years, you weren’t eligible. If someone makes the choice to take college courses, it shouldn’t count. If someone never steps foot in the school, they shouldn’t be eligible. These flaps have to do with adults setting up the systems lacking common sense. You need to compare apples and apples.

Nothing wrong with competition. Personally, I didn’t care much and never went to check on my class rank. Others near the top of the class were really into it (and kept me informed of where I was). Some did their best taking tough courses. Some took easy courses. Some got totally stressed out. The eventual valedictorian broke down and cried to the Physics teacher because of his tough grading. We all ended up getting 10 extra points on that test. But that’s all life. School is supposed to help prepare you for life afterwards.


June 7th, 2012
2:52 pm

Absolutely keep the awards. Winning valedictorian or salutatorian does not assure anyone of anything outside of high school, but it does note their academic accomplishment while in HS.


June 7th, 2012
2:54 pm

Guess what…life isn’t fair. Sometimes you will lose by a thousandth or ten thousandth of a point. Not honoring top achievers is shameful. Additionally, if you have learned by high school graduation how to game the system for grades, chances are you will be a top performer at the college level from day one. Being smart is not enough, you have to learn how to play the game. School administrators that refuse that opportunity to children should be ashamed. Sounds to me as if the administrator above, is more concerned about unhappy parents who cry “no fair” and withhold big donations.
Also, I agree “wrongheaded” is simply wrong.


June 7th, 2012
2:57 pm

@ Putting Kids First: “the principal announced the GPA of the valedictorian and salutatorian, and it was a ridiculously small difference that means virtually nothing in the real world.”
then why is the stop watch for the Olympics set to record at 1/100th or even 1/1000th of a second? There is always someone in first place. You may want to think the kids are upset by the competition or just don’t care, but they do. They know. THAT is the real world. Might as well introduce this concept while the competition is friendly.


June 7th, 2012
3:18 pm

nicely played. will you marry me?

That depends on your GPA and class ranking. Submit your transcripts and I’ll get back to you.


June 7th, 2012
4:11 pm

I highly doubt that schools have done away with class rankings for the reasons put forth by this headmaster. The real reason is that they don’t want to deal with those parents whose kids come in second or third. These days, far too many parents are unwilling to accept the idea that their kid is not the very best at something, and they will go to the school board, the media, or even court to make sure that their special snowflake gets the recognition he/she ‘deserves.’


June 7th, 2012
4:15 pm

To argue that it isn’t fair because “AP courses are harder so the GPA will fall” is not dissimilar from saying “Your one-mile course time is better because it has more straightaways than mine” While technically true, you had a choice in which course you wanted to choose. If being the Valedictorian or Salutatorian is so important to an AP student then they should work even harder. Otherwise theyre just whining.


June 7th, 2012
4:20 pm

There is a lot of mention in these comments of competition and the “real world”. Tell me something: how do you “win” in real life? There’s no grand prize that will be handed to anyone at some point in their lives because they’ve accrued the most points. Instead, people are motivated by the things that matter to them as individuals. If learning (notice the emphasis here is not GRADES) matters to someone, they will do well in school and become educated REGARDLESS of whether they are competing for a prize or not.


June 7th, 2012
4:34 pm

For 11th and 12th grades, I went to a magnet high school with competitive admissions (not in Georgia). Nearly ALL of us were valedictorian or salutatorian at our old schools. Our magnet school did not rank and only provided GPAs when a college refused to admit without them. The result? It fostered a stronger sense of community and teamwork among the students, and we were far more focused on learning the material well as opposed to making the best grades. As for the speech at graduation, we had an essay contest (which had the added value of the administration knowing ahead of time what the speaker was going to say). I’m glad I went through that experience even though I had been salutatorian. I learned more, and not just in terms of the books either; in the 20 years since I graduated, I’ve realized that learning how to learn and work collaboratively was far more useful than scoring well on tests and evaluations.


June 7th, 2012
4:43 pm

Someone beat me to the ‘participation’ awards; Padeiaieiaieiaieia (just couldn’t stop) might be a little too progressive for most of us.

And, Southpaw, I was that #11 guy; missed by just that much, and scarred for life. I now hate competition and I’ll cry if you say you beat me.


June 7th, 2012
5:15 pm

When we stop celebrating high school jocks and their accomplishment, then we can do away with Val/Sal awards and recognization. Induction into the National Honor Society may not be as exciting as going to a sport event or banquet, but these kids work just as hard. If you have the number 1 basketball or football player, why is it so bad to reward the number 1 student in the senior class? Besides in my day the smart kids were usually the “dumb jocks” tutor.


June 7th, 2012
5:16 pm

I meant recognition.


June 7th, 2012
5:22 pm

@digger I have been an educator in a public school for 26 years. I was the clear “front runner” for valedictorian in my high school but by January of my junior year of high school, I had taken all of the courses that I needed for graduation and passed all of the New York State Regents exams with scores of no less than 98. There weren’t any AP classes or gifted programs back then, soI opted to skip my senior year and went directly to college…finished THAT in 3 years and was accepted into the masters program at the premier research university in my field. At the school where I currently teach, 2 of the teachers on staff were valedictorians…..if I had stuck around to languish at my high school, there would be three of us. I’m not exactly sure what your point is, because you don’t have anything on which to base an argument.

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher is to get students to want to learn for the sake of learning….solve problems for the satisfaction of having solved them, and ask questions for the sake of intellectual and creative growth. They want the grade, and get very frustrated with me when I downplay the importance of grades and focus on creative problem solving.

At the end of the course, when I ask, ” What did you get out of this class?”, it is my sincere hope that they don’t say, “Oh, I got an A.”

I think that the notion of valedictorian and salutatorian are antiquated and of little value in today’s society.


June 7th, 2012
6:28 pm

At my high school, they did away with selecting a valedictorian for many of the same reasons mentioned by Bianchi. They realized that the finest of margins separated students at the top of the class, and the winner ended up being the one who played the game the best. In addition, some of my friends were put in the position where if they continued to pursue their interests in band, orchestra, journalism, or any other area in which AP credit was not offered, they would lose out to those who exclusively took AP classes and thus were able to pull 5s while these other courses maxed out at 4. It was a perverse system. Plus, most years the speeches were awful and painful for everyone else to sit through. Eventually, my school moved to a system in which the top ten or so students could “apply” to be valedictorian and salutatorian. I believe they were chosen based on how good their speeches were. Everyone benefited from this system.

metro atlanta teacher

June 7th, 2012
6:37 pm


Really? I was valedictorian of my high school (not in GA), and while education was not my original major in college, I have been teaching high school math for ten years. I started in engineering, hated it, and switched to math education. Not only was I valedictorian, I still hold the record at my high school for highest ACT score (at least it was the last time I visited a few years ago).

When my friends used to bust on me for going into teaching, I always asked them, “Don’t you want smart people teaching your kids too?” That usually shut them up.

Great American

June 7th, 2012
7:31 pm

I’m not sure why anyone would want to be valedictorian. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the Tea Party, anyone who excels academically is a liberal elitist who can’t compete with all the wealthy small business owners, HVAC repairmen, mechanics, plumbers, and electricians whose vast fortunes are being redistributed to subsidize the salaries of gay communist literature professors at Ivy League schools.

GACS was terrible...

June 7th, 2012
8:00 pm

But Deep Shah is my hero!!

Jerry Eads

June 7th, 2012
8:26 pm

The resident measurement/statistics guy agrees with Paul. Haven’t met him, likely never will, but I agree with with his analysis.

Shane, I’m sure, was very pleased with his performance and no doubt should be. But he doesn’t know, nor should he be expected to with a journalism BA, much about measurement. Average grades, albeit actually quite a bit more accurate than state minimum competency test pass rates or even SAT stest scores in rating student performance, are egregiously inaccurate as Paul notes. Splitting GPAs with three and four decimal points is akin to measuring the top speed of bullet trains with a yardstick and a stopwatch. We’re pretty good at making stopwatches, and can do pretty well measuring an individual’s 100-yard dash by hand with one, but splitting hairs with grades (or test scores) is nothing more than throwing darts blindfolded. For picking valedictorian, we might as well just draw straws among the top 10% of a class. It would be equally accurate and, perhaps, more fair. If we were to toss such awards, as Paul points out, high-performaing kids might be more willing to think and learn rather than just play it safe.

GT Alumna

June 7th, 2012
9:05 pm

While I see nothing wrong with Val/Sal monikers (having graduated 8th in my HS class), how about considering academic labels for HS seniors such as Magna Cum Laude, Summa Cum Laude, and Graduating with High Honors? That way, depending upon your GPA, you are recognized for your academic prowess and the namby-pamby self-esteem protectors can take a break. That’s how colleges and universities do it and it works rather well.

Ed Johnson

June 7th, 2012
9:33 pm

“Competition built America and can be a powerful force for good.”

Absolutely wrong! Cooperation built America.

And it’s fairly easy to see why. Simply make two lists.

Step 1: On the first, list “competition” instances.

Step 2: On the second, list “cooperation” instances.

Step 3: See that your cooperation list is way longer than your competition list

Note: This exercise will not work if you’re if fixated on competition and blind to what cooperation means.