It's "Well, we finally made it!" season again, as valedictorians mount podiums at high school graduations across the United States to exhort classmates into the 21st century.
British clerics started delivering "valedictions" to bid farewell to their congregations as early as 1614. But the term valedictorian, or "the student appointed on grounds of merit to deliver the valedictory oration on Commencement Day," is strictly American - as is the controversy over whether the practice should continue.
Many educators are convinced that designating a No. 1 student is a way to recognize academic achievement in a school culture that more readily honors athletics or popularity.
But others question whether the formula for picking a class valedictorian is fair, especially if grade-point averages (GPAs) need to be calculated out to the sixth decimal place to identify a winner.
Critics also worry that the hunt for top honors foments grade lust, especially among parents. The popular bumper sticker, "I am the proud parent of an Honor Student at...." has quickly prompted ripostes such as, "My student is an honored student at...." or more abusive variations.
For those who win top honors, the recognition is important. "Every honor begets more honors," says Karen Arnold, associate professor of higher education at Boston College and author of "Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians."
Not much is known about valedictorians. Ms. Arnold helped direct the only systematic study of top-ranked students. She and co-director Terry Denny tracked 81 Illinois valedictorians from the class of 1981. Most didn't fit the bookish stereotype and many weren't the brightest students. But they are the hardest workers.
"To be valedictorian is to succeed in a system ... of advancement through personal merit and effort.... Bright people need to be recognized.... No one would tell a football player that it is terrible to want to win," she says.
Class valedictorian Amy Schnitzer doesn't claim to be the smartest kid at Tomales High School, a small public school in Tomales, Calif. "Being valedictorian means that you're a hard worker and you try your best," she says. "When I heard that I might have a chance at valedictorian, I thought it would be neat, but I didn't think about it all the time. As a biochemistry major, I always took the hardest courses."
In fact, no one keeps track of how many high schools designate a valedictorian or how they calculate class rankings. Nationwide, more than a third of students have grades in the A-minus range, according to the College Board, which oversees the SAT.
In the case of a tie in grade-point averages, many schools name multiple valedictorians. Others, such as Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego, now award this status to any student who achieves a 4.0 average.
"As an educator, I like to celebrate student success ... and maybe this defuses the angst among students," Principal David LeMay told The San Diego Union-Tribune. His school named 42 valedictorians this year.
At least 7 percent of US high schools have dropped the practice of ranking classes altogether, according to a 1993 study.
Concord Academy, a private school in Concord, Mass., where 100 percent of graduates go on to college, eliminated all awards at its graduation. School officials say that they warn parents of applicants that students will not rack up honors to flesh out a college application.
"Our mission statement talks about fostering love of learning for its own sake, and you can't have love of learning if you have people competing to see if their GPA is .2 above someone else's," says Acting Headmistress Sharon Lloyd Clark.
At Saturday's graduation, Ms. Clark asked the class to stand, and then read out the lines that have been used at Concord graduations for the last 16 years:
"Concord Academy awards no prizes, has no class rank, does not believe in formally recognizing the achievement of one student over another; therefore the such-and-such-famous-name prize for excellence in English, mathematics, foreign languages, science, history, art, music, drama, film, computer studies, dance, community service, and athletic accomplishment in any of our 20 sports, citizenship, public speaking, contribution to boarding-student life, contribution to day-student life, to all-aroundedness - all of those prizes go to every member of the class. It is they who have maintained excellence."
Students at nearby Concord-Carlisle Regional High School staged their own revolt against class rankings two years ago. As in many high schools, there has been steady grade inflation.
"The differences between students in the top ranks were minute," says Assistant Principal Henry Damon. "Sometimes we'd have a class of extremely strong achievers, and we'd hear kids say things like, 'If only I were in the class that graduated two years ago, I'd be in the top fifth [percentile], not the top 10th.' "
That attitude is what concerns many educators who have wrestled with the question of how to rank students.
"The competition for A's can get ugly, especially at private college-prep schools where some parents push more than is healthy," says Jim LeFever, a history teacher and former guidance counselor at Tomales High.
"Having valedictorians is not only irrelevant but destructive, and the number crunching done in the name of 'rewarding academic excellence' is ludicrous," writes Sam Nissen, a guidance counselor at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., in the current issue of "American Teacher."
"When the top 20 kids are separated by only a tenth of a point, you can't really identify the best and the brightest," he adds in an interview. Parent groups in Columbia are leading a drive to weight courses, so that rankings better reflect the difficulty of a student's program.
"They're looking for every edge to get their kids into the best school," he says.
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