A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How significant is it to be named valedictorian?

Schools around these parts have named multiple valedictorians for years--- possibly even before the "self-esteem" train began gaining momentum. But here's yet another indication from the New York Times that times change when it comes to grades, grade point averages, and honoring academic achievement:
There will be no valedictory speech at Jericho High School’s graduation on Sunday. With seven seniors laying claim to the title by compiling A-plus averages, no one wanted to sit through a solid half-hour of inspirational quotations and sappy memories.

Darvin Yi, one of nine valedictorians at Cherry Hill High School East in southern New Jersey. The school picked one graduation speaker by lottery and printed speeches from the others.

Instead, the seven will perform a 10-minute skit titled “2010: A Jericho Odyssey,” about their collective experience at this high-achieving Long Island high school, finishing up with 30 seconds each to say a few words to their classmates and families.

“When did we start saying that we should limit the honors so only one person gets the glory?” asked Joe Prisinzano, the Jericho principal.

In top suburban schools across the country, the valedictorian, a beloved tradition, is rapidly losing its singular meaning as administrators dispense the title to every straight-A student rather than try to choose the best among them.

Principals say that recognizing multiple valedictorians reduces pressure and competition among students, and is a more equitable way to honor achievement, particularly when No. 1 and No. 5 may be separated by only the smallest fraction of a grade from sophomore science. But some scholars and parents have criticized the swelling valedictorian ranks as yet another symptom of rampant grade inflation, with teachers reluctant to jeopardize the best and brightest’s chances of admission to top-tier colleges.

“It’s honor inflation,” said Chris Healy, an associate professor at Furman University, who said that celebrating so many students as the best could leave them ill prepared for competition in college and beyond. “I think it’s a bad idea if you’re No. 26 and you’re valedictorian. In the real world, you do get ranked.”

Not, though, at graduation from Stratford High School in the suburbs of Houston, which accorded its 30 valedictorians — about 6.5 percent of the class — gold honor cords. Nor at Cherry Hill High School East in southern New Jersey, which has revised its graduation tradition, picking a speaker among this year’s nine co-valedictorians by lottery and printing speeches from the others in the program.

In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, which the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, complained in an editorial “stretches the definition.” And north of New York City, Harrison High School is phasing out the title, and on Friday declared 13 of its 221 graduates “summa cum laude.”

William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, said he had heard of schools with more than 100 valedictorians, and had seen home-schooled students praised as No. 1 — out of one — all of which has helped render the distinction meaningless.

“I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism,” he said. “This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”

Read the whole thing.

I do like the skit idea, though. Every year, it's like our student speakers pull 85 cliches out of the ol' cliche bag for their graduation speeches. There has also been a big trend around here to go to the "cum laude" system since finally people with some sway complained about have 11 valedictorians in a class of less than 400 graduates.

Now that there are weighted grades for honors/college credit/advanced placement classes, the grubbing for valedictorian can get particularly nasty. Then there are those kids who take online courses simply to try to grab valedictorian honors for themselves. Add in grade inflation and parental pressure onstudents, teachers, and administrators, and perhaps we should be trying to find a better way.

And besides, kids, two years from now no one will remember or care who the valedictorian was-- unless they flame out spectacularly like the valedictorian of a friend's high school class, who became a raging alcoholic and dropped out of college after six months. THAT'll get you some notoriety.

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At 7/22/10, 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually remember, 16 years later, who the top 4 in my class were and that the valedictorian and elected class speaker both spoke about hiking as a metaphor for life.

The elementary school where I teach gives biweekly awards to 1 or 2 children in every class at a whole school assembly. It is the expectation that by the end of the year every kid has gotten an award. I think the whole thing is dumb.

The daughter of one of my coworkers graduated in 2009. I know for sure that she took some classes online during her senior year to boost her standing. Her classmates were actually upset that she got the honor instead of another student.

I like the cum laude idea, and then instead of a valedictorian they could have an elected class speaker. The only real trouble I could see it causing are scholarships that are based on class standing. They could also narrow the field with attendance records and school involvement.

At 7/22/10, 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My high school did a couple of different things, all of which I liked. There was an official ranking, so that everyone knew where he stood for college applications, etc., but everyone with a 95+ average got to sit in a special section during the ceremony. But there was a lot of complaining, because our school didn't have weighted grades.

All the speeches, however, were up for grabs and had to be auditioned for. I had friends in college who actually gamed the system so that they *weren't* valedictorian, because they didn't want to give the speech... seems to make more sense this way.


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