Students and parents cling to the tradition of naming a valedictorian, but a growing number of high schools want to honor more than one top student.
As June approaches, high school valedictorians are making their way into the headlines - not by virtue of their academic achievements, but rather due to their legal battles.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Several cases have been reported in recent months:
• A family in Hull, Mass., filed a civil suit in February to establish their daughter's right to be named valedictorian of her class, even though she had graduated ahead of schedule last year and is already a freshman in college.
• In Tonasket, Wash., a family filed a suit earlier this month to prevent their son's school from changing its honors-selection process, a switch that would have threatened his position as valedictorian.
• A Michigan high school senior filed a suit against his school district in January, arguing that an A he received should have been an A+, which would have pushed him from the No. 2 salutorian slot up to valedictorian.
Giving the valedictory (meaning "to say farewell") speech and being named the top student are honors for which generations of students have eagerly competed. It marks a tradition going back several centuries to the days when British valedictorians offered their addresses in Latin.
But today, students - and their parents - seem to care about the designation more fiercely than ever. And as the competition grows more heated, some schools are walking away from the practice altogether.
"For us, 1999 was the first year without valedictorians, and people are very content with that," says Kelli Durham, assistant superintendent for communications at Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas.
In that case, it wasn't feuding that finished the practice, says Ms. Durham, but rather a growing sense that honoring just one or two students out of a graduating class that could be as large as 700 students wasn't fair.
"The impression you get with valedictorian and salutorian is that you have [only] two outstanding students, and with our large classes that's just not the case," says Durham. Now, as many as 120 seniors share the honors as top students.
Other schools worry that too many students are choosing classes not for content, but for the way the grade they're most likely to earn will affect their grade-point average (GPA).
"One of our concerns is that there is danger of the mark becoming the point," says Jim Rickabaugh, superintendent of the highly regarded Whitefish Bay school district in suburban Milwaukee, where this year, for the first time, class rankings will no longer be made public. A group of 10 students will be honored together at graduation.
For too many students, "meeting certain targets" has become more important than "rich, broad, all-round learning," Mr. Rickabaugh says.
But to many families today, "targets" like a top class ranking matter tremendously. They are viewed as important tools to gain admission to highly selective and prestigious colleges.
"Parents always want what's best for their children," says Joyce Smith, executive director for the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va. But as competition to get into the most selective college sharpens, "a lot of crazy stuff is going on. Every criterion for admissions is being challenged."
Students and their parents fret over class ranking because they believe it will make a big difference in the admissions process, Ms. Smith says. But despite that perception, she says colleges - particularly the most selective ones - aren't necessarily all that impressed by class rank.