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A Farewell to Traditional Valedictorians

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 1997; Page J01
The Washington Post

Last year's valedictory address at Archbishop Spalding High School in Anne Arundel County was not exactly blasphemous. But the young speaker's references to "forced religion" and "hypocrisy" were not gladly received at the Catholic school, so guess what? This year, Spalding had no valedictorian.

Most high schools in the Washington area have not encountered quite so spectacular a clash between student rhetoric and administrative decorum, but stressful episodes of other kinds have been frequent enough to reduce significantly the number of traditional valedictorians -- that is, determined by grades -- here and elsewhere in the country.

Few high schools have escaped the bitter aftermath of having its valedictorian decided by a thousandth of a point, or the pain of listening to a 17-year-old physics prodigy deliver what he thinks is a humorous commencement oration. Such incidents add to the urge to try a different way of selecting the student speakers.

A few school districts, including Howard County's, bar traditional valedictorians because they think the grade-conscious atmosphere typical of American high schools should not intrude on the ceremony. "We feel that graduation is a time to recognize the achievements of all students and not just the ones at the top of their class," schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said.

However, most high schools, public and private, still name valedictorians or have other awards to honor outstanding students. In some schools, the valedictorian designation often is given to everyone who has achieved a 4.0 average. Traditionally, a valedictorian is the student with the highest grade-point average who delivers a farewell speech at commencement.

At Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County, for example, 19 students were named valedictorians this year, and 33 were named at Yorktown High School in Arlington County.

At Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, Principal Gerald Boarman instituted a Row of Honor at the school's graduation ceremony for all students with a 4.0 or above GPA and a Row of Distinction for those with averages of 3.8 or 3.9.

"The bloodthirsty competition is not as important now as it used to be," he said, "because they all know that they are going to be recognized for their academic achievement."

Nationwide, the movement against class ranking and valedictorians has been strongest in the highest-achieving schools, where grade competition is so intense that students with 4.0 averages find they are far from the top of their class and do not want colleges to know that. Studies indicate that the rising grade-point averages are caused by more lenient teachers, more intense desires to gain admission to selective colleges and new grading systems that give extra points for honors or Advanced Placement courses. A 1993 survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that about 7 percent of high schools had abolished class ranking, and educators say they think that percentage has grown.

Montgomery County abolished class ranking in 1993 because of the competitive ill will and the college application difficulties created by a steady surge in the number of straight-A students.

John Keating, head counselor at Walt Whitman High in Montgomery County, calculated that 31 percent of his seniors have averages of 4.0 or above, part of a phenomenon that has led many schools to pick graduation speakers not by grades but by student ballot or through speech contests.

"The competition for the top ranking was going out to the seventh or eighth decimal point, and the principals and teachers and parents agreed that kids were being harmed by this unnatural comparison of students by a decimal point or two," said Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery County public schools.

The county's banning of class ranks on college transcripts did not prohibit the selection of valedictorians, although it tended to discourage the practice at most of the county's 20 high schools.

Those public schools who have turned against ranking and picking valedictorians by grades are doing what many elite private schools did long ago.

"We don't believe in students competing against each other for this kind of recognition," said Paul Levy, principal of Georgetown Day School's Upper School in Washington. Instead, Georgetown Day students pick their graduation speakers by secret ballot. Many private schools award prizes based on character, public service or other qualities.

In schools where valedictorians are selected, most are girls, said Karen Arnold, an associate professor at Boston College who has studied the subject. Girls in general get better grades in high school "because they are more willing to abide by the rules of the system and achieve within those rules," Arnold said.

More often than not, schools pick valedictorians by the bushel.

At Centreville Secondary School and at Madison High in Fairfax County, everyone with a 4.0 average or above is declared a valedictorian. Centreville Principal Pamela Latt said the valedictorians themselves decide who will speak at commencement. This year, the 13 valedictorians (the number swelled to 17 on graduation day) picked Jennifer Miselis to speak.

At Madison, the valedictorians enjoy the academic honor, but the elected class and student government leaders give the speeches.

Over the years, the valedictory tradition has suffered as much from the varying quality of the speeches as it has from the distaste for grade lust. "We had a salutatorian one time who could barely get out a 'hello,' " said Donna DiGennaro, assistant principal for academic affairs at Anne Arundel's Spalding High.

Fear of such disasters is one reason Oakton High School in Fairfax, Richard Montgomery and Walt Whitman high schools in Montgomery and several others offer every interested senior a chance to be picked as a speaker.

Richard Montgomery assistant principal Helen Ryan said the school uses a complex scoring system; the three students rated highest by a panel of students, community members and staff members are allowed to speak at graduation for three minutes each.

Julia Young, a graduating Whitman senior, said she preferred this system, particularly because it gave her friend Joanne Roop, one of the designated speakers, a chance to deliver a stirring reminder that the graduates would be judged in life on more than their expensive cars and fine resumes. Roop had good grades, but not high enough to be a valedictorian, Young said, "and the person with the best grades is not always going to be the best speaker."

The Spalding High administration did not react negatively to last year's commencement speech because the valedictorian was inarticulate -- -quite the opposite. "The speech was inflammatory," DiGennaro said. "It wasn't very nice about religion, and the commencement address is given at a mass."

This year, the school had a speech contest before a board of three students and four teachers. The 10 students with the best grades were invited to write and deliver a speech to the board. It selected Kelley Lord, who was about fourth in the class.

The end of the valedictorian tradition at Spalding was protested vigorously by John Bova, the top student in the class; Melissa Daniels, the No. 2 student; and their parents. Both students said they were being censored, adding their complaints to those of some students, parents and educators at other schools who believe top academic achievers should be given at least as much recognition as quarterbacks and prom queens.

With so few ways to reward academic work, "to eliminate such a socially significant recognition is really a crime," said Arnold of Boston College.

In the Spalding case, the archdiocese declined to overrule the school. Lord gave her speech, and Bova and Daniels were given medallions proclaiming them First in Class and Second in Class.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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