Farewell to the valedictorians
High schools are dispensing with honoring the highest-ranking graduates
It’s commencement time at high schools across the fruited plain, and either the kids in Rutherford County, Tenn., are extraordinarily smart or their teachers have given up. The county’s highly ranked Central Magnet School has 48 valedictorians — a fourth of the class.
It’s part of a trend of eliminating the ancient custom of choosing a valedictorian, the boy or girl who finishes first in the class after 12 years of grinding effort. The honor of salutatorian, the runner-up, has always been highly prized, too. Many schools have adopted Latin honors, naming graduates cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude, three, two and one (Pig Latin doesn’t count.)
The principal of Lancaster High in Buffalo, N.Y., where the Latin honorifics are considered for this year, says he’s neutral on the issue but tells the Associated Press that he worries about the 11thranked student who would fall just short of honors awarded to the top 10 students. Connor Carrow, 17, was among those who pressed for the change to using the Latin honors and finished 14th in the class. He still thinks the new system better fits in with the school’s “collaborative and co-operative ideals.”
“You’re striving for that honor personally,” he says, “but you’re not hoping that you’re better than those other 400 people next to you.” But Daniel Buscaglia, a classmate who finished No. 1, isn’t so sure. He thinks the competition in high school will help him succeed at Cornell, where he will enroll this fall.
Critics of abandoning the custom of publicly ranking students say it will encourage the phenomenon of the “snowflake” on many college campuses, where students demand that nothing disturb their delicate “safe places” where neither competition, controversy nor contrary opinions are allowed to intrude.
About half of the nation’s high schools no longer report class rank, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and some administrators worry about how small differences in grade-point averages can separate students by large differences in rank. Many administrators apparently prefer a system where every student can be above average.
When rankings were released at Hammond High in Columbia, Md., not long ago, the administrators told students their number privately, to avoid embarrassing the low-finishers. The rankings stayed private for almost a minute. “That was the only thing everyone was talking about,” says Mikey Peterson, 18, who finished in the bottom third of the class. He seemed to survive easily. “I shrugged it off,” he says, and will attend West Virginia University in September.
So far the movement to eliminate the pain of competition has not penetrated athletic departments. High school football teams still have to grind out touchdowns the old-fashioned way and the teams that finish with the most touchdowns win. It’s a lesson that life teaches everyone.