Renya Reed is part of a dying tradition -- she is her high school's valedictorian.
Reed won the top award for academic excellence earlier this week after tallying a perfect grade point average during her four years at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. Once the most prestigious award given to the senior with the highest marks, Reed's valedictorian honor is no longer the crown it was.
A victim of a decade and a half of educational change, the valedictorian honor, like the soda fountain, is becoming an outdated rite in America's more affluent high schools, including those in Washington's suburbs.
"I think it's really a shame that a lot of high schools are not honoring the student with the highest grades anymore," says 17-year-old Reed, a National Merit scholar who plans to attend Duke University. "I won a number of awards, but none was as hard to get as the valedictorian. For the National Merit scholar I had to take a test for three hours. To be valedictorian, I had to work for four years."
Figures on the declining number of high school valedictorians nationwide are unavailable, but educators around the country agree that many high schools have either eliminated the more than 100-year-old award or changed it so that it is no longer given to a single student who then delivers the commencement address.
The changes began emerging in the 1960s as many courses became voluntary and grade point averages, also boosted by grade inflation, no longer reflected student achievement in a core of academic studies. As more youths went on to college, educators say, the importance of a high school education diminished and the role of the high school in the community decreased.
"The decline of the valedictory is a sign of a much larger change in American high schools," says Geraldine Clifford, a professor in the school of education at the University of California at Berkeley.
"At one point the public high school was the fanciest building in town and graduation was a community event . . . Since the early sixties, there has been a decline in the status of the high school as a rallying point . . . Courses were no longer uniform. Students became more autonomous. They became anti-institutional. The valedictorian, a very important part of tradition since the 19th century, just was no longer a valid institution."
In Washington-area school systems, only the 12 public high schools in the District, the single high school in Alexandria and two of Arlington's three high schools regularly select one valedictorian.
In Prince George's County, schools began eliminating the award after the school board voted 11 years ago to discontinue class rankings. No Prince George's high school names a valedictorian today.
In Montgomery and Fairfax, schools decide on an individual basis whether to nominate one senior for the prize. In Reed's case, she attended one of the five high schools out of 22 in Montgomery that honor one top scoring senior. Four other county schools had no valedictorians, and in the remaining 13 schools, two to 12 seniors were selected in each.
At Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, 20 valedictorians were named this year.
At some schools with valedictorians, the names of the students were not noted on the graduation program and they did not speak at the graduation ceremony. Students at Fairfax's Jefferson High decided last year to honor the top 10 students in the class and eliminate the valedictorian. A photograph of the 10 hangs in the school's "academic hall."
"It's just not important anymore," says Donald Warren, an educational historian at the University of Maryland. "When I went to high school in the fifties, the valedictorian, like the good citizen award and the class sweetheart, was a very important part of our tradition. There were no underground newspapers and we never really thought of doing anything sub rosa . . .
"But all that began to change in the late sixties. There were the protest movements and the structure of knowledge began to change. Kids were no longer taking uniform courses. The valedictorian then began to seem like a less useful tool for interpreting academic excellence," he said.
Instead of a basic core of studies common until the 1960s, high school students today usually select from more than 200 courses. Faced with this ever-growing number of offerings--with varying degrees of difficulty--grades are no longer considered the best reflection of achievement and class ranking, the traditional criteria for valedictorian selection. Today, class rank is considered less important for college acceptance than college aptitude test scores, because students with the same grade average may have carried an easier course load.
"The subject levels and choices are just so different now it would be unfair to select someone solely on the basis of a grade-point average," says Tom Marshall, principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. There are no valedictorians at Springbrook, where the top 5 percent of the class is honored--an increasingly common practice.
"The term valedictorian is no longer part of a student's vocabulary," says Mike Michaelson, Montgomery County's administrative assistant for student affairs. "If you asked the average student who got 800 a perfect score on their college boards or who did well on their advanced placement tests, they could tell you. But I doubt if anyone could tell you who the valedictorian was."
In areas where valedictorians still are honored, educators give varying reasons for their survival.
In the District, where the traditional rite of selecting a valedictorian is followed, former school superintendent Vincent Reed says urban school systems have more of a responsibility to maintain the custom. In Montgomery County schools, 79 percent of the students go on to college compared to 40 percent in the District.
"We don't have many ways to reward our youngsters who do well," says Reed, now a vice president of communications for The Washington Post. "If you have a lot of rewards then the valedictorian may not mean much. But our kids have not been that fortunate. We use the valedictorian as a role model to say to other students, 'This is what you can receive if you work hard.' "
Current school superintendent Floretta McKenzie, however, says the primary reason for following the traditional valedictorian custom in the District has more to do with rewarding academic excellence than compensating for a shortage of other prizes.
"The valedictorian is our symbol of excellence," says McKenzie. "The mission of our schools is academic achievements and this person represents to the student body the fulfillment of that goal."
In New York City high schools, one valedictorian also is usually selected. In contrast, schools in some affluent suburban areas such as Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, where the majority of graduating seniors go on to college, have never chosen valedictorians.
"There are a lot of very talented students here who work very hard and do very well," says Pete Treibley, an assistant principal at Whitman. "It would be arbitrary to select one or even a number of students to honor for academic excellence."