Bragging rights

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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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• 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.

"To be able to say, 'I was first out of my class of 800,' that's quite an accomplishment, but I don't know that college admissions offices look at that and say, 'Oh, we've got to take that one,' " she says. "What colleges are really looking at is what courses you're taking, that mix of experience and involvement."

Withholding class rank

Some years ago, high schools were nervous about suppressing class rankings because they feared it would lessen the appeal of their students in the eyes of admissions officers. But today, withholding class-rank numbers is becoming a more common practice, especially at the most competitive public high schools. Some colleges estimate that as many as half of all college applications they see no longer include a number indicating where the student stands in his or her class.

There are cases, however, where class rank really does matter. In Texas and Florida, for instance, the top 10 percent of the graduating class at public high schools are guaranteed admission to state universities. And when it comes to competing for certain scholarships, class rank can be an important factor.

It's a problem schools say they can work around. "If it's crucial for a major scholarship," says Rickabaugh, "then we make [the number] available."

Courts usually side with schools

But simply downplaying class rankings doesn't wipe out the mentality that produced the anxiety over them in the first place, says Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

As a lawyer, Professor Zirkel says he would counsel schools not to worry about families suing over who should be named valedictorian. Courts grant schools very wide discretion in matters of "academic expertise" and would be very unlikely to rule against them in such a case.

But as a citizen, he finds the lawsuit trend worrisome and speculates that it may be the result of grade inflation.

"Part of the problem is the school officials themselves," Zirkel says. "They're so lax on grading and have allowed this inflationary effect. Everybody is now squeezed up on top and has such high expectations. Then, if you get litigation, you asked for it."

Apart from handing out more A's, however, other grading practices in today's schools complicate class ranking.

With the proliferation of advanced-placement courses, and the growing practice of letting capable high schoolers take classes at local colleges, many schools have felt the need to give added weight to their grades.

Once upon a time, a letter grade "A" simply counted for four points. But now, in some schools, a student who takes an advanced physics class may earn five points. It's a distinction that is perhaps fairer to students willing to risk harder classes, but it introduces a whole new level of complexity into the process of calculating grade point averages.

There may also be a broader change in societal attitudes that makes it more difficult today to reward the students with the highest achievements.

In years past most adults were comfortable singling out the top achievers among young students. Now, some schools and teachers are more inclined to worry about the feelings of the students who are not recognized.

"There are some charges that this is part of the watering down of striving for excellence," says Tom Hutton, staff attorney of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "We want everybody to feel good, so we're not going to hold up one person."

Mr. Hutton says, however, that he believes many of the questions about grade point averages are coming to the surface now because today's schools have much richer and more varied course offerings then they did a generation or so ago.

When everyone took the same classes, grade point averages were less open to dispute. "In a lot of places, the difficulty has arisen because we're doing a good job of offering a lot of interesting and innovative ways for our kids to learn," Hutton says. "Overall, this is a symptom of a good thing."

But if concerns about class rank have sparked a worthy debate about the way a student's academic experience is assessed and evaluated, they have also stirred up a hornet's nest of other issues. Some, in fact, are similar to the arguments made in the recent US Supreme Court battle over the use of racial preferences in college admissions.

In search of a level playing field

Students and their parents want grades and awards to be assigned in a manner that they deem fair, even as they want to see the college admissions process made as equitable as possible.

But the harder schools work to make things fair, the clearer it becomes that there's no such thing as a totally even playing field.

Parents and students alike long desperately for the whole college admissions process "to be more transparent, more objective," Smith says. "But the reality is that there are aspects that are very subjective, especially at very competitive schools."

That reality, Smith says, "is hard for families to understand."

Where are the valedictorians now?

It's an honor many covet, but does being valedictorian actually predict success in later life?

Yes and no, says Karen Arnold, a Boston College professor and researcher who's been tracking a group of high school valedictorians for more than 20 years.

"They're a good bet for continuing success," Professor Arnold says. "But in general they're not eminent, they're not mold-breakers."

Valedictorians tend to be very conscientious, responsible people who achieve a type of well-rounded success, Arnold says. But what they don't have, she notes, is "that overriding passion for a single thing that is often what makes you eminent in later life."

Arnold's coresearcher, Terry Denny, selected 81 valedictorians graduating from Illinois public high schools in 1981, and he and Arnold have followed them ever since. In 1995, Arnold wrote a book called "Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians" (Jossey-Bass Publishers).

In general, Arnold says, the group that she affectionately refers to as "my valedictorians" are leading productive and fulfilling lives. But not all felt that their academic honors contributed positively to their lives after high school.

The expectations of success that surround a valedictorian are "the hardest thing in the world to live up to," one former valedictorian told Arnold, lamenting later in life that she felt weary.

Another woman felt her academic status pushed her into medical school, not because she wanted to go, but because she had absorbed the idea that the highest-ranked students must choose between medicine or law. After school, she wished she had been free to study French literature instead.

One male valedictorian regretted having focused so hard on his grade-point average. "All that creativity should have been going into an art class," he told Arnold.

The high school valedictorians she has studied are extremely nice people who make positive contributions to their communities, Arnold says. "They're not the ones to set the world on fire, but the ones to sustain it."

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