I wasn’t the valedictorian at my high school, although I dearly wanted to be. My grade grubbing was so intense that my Latin teacher called me the “millimeter bandit.”
My fascination with the decline of the valedictorian in America since may reflect my resentment at missing that prize. But the change in graduation practices also says much about our conflicted feelings about elitism and competition.
A generation ago, there seemed no threat to the tradition of identifying the senior with the best grades. A 1993 survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that only 7 percent of high schools had abolished class ranking. Seventeen years later, however, that figure had climbed to 50 percent.
The Washington Post this year surveyed 1,031 high schools and found the anti-valedictorian movement breaking into two camps. Twenty percent said they give top honors to many seniors, often those with grade point averages of 4.0 or above. Twenty-three percent said they recognized no one that way at graduation. Fifty-three percent said they still have a valedictorian.
The retreat from class ranking probably began early in the Washington area because of its high concentration of affluent, ambitious high schools. Educators and parents at such schools are often uncomfortable with the social and college application pressures associated with class ranking.
A 2010 report by the principals association said that many schools “are concerned that small differences in GPAs could lead to large differences in class rank, which could hurt student prospects for admission.” It recommended that schools “encourage and recognize excellence in a spirit of cooperation, not intense competition that sets one student against another.”
When I wrote about this in 1997, Howard County, Md., had already barred traditional valedictorians because, as one official said, “graduation is a time to recognize the achievements of all students.” Other Washington-area districts had begun to recognize all students with a GPA of 4.0 or above with titles like the “Row of Honor.”
There had also been problems with what valedictorian orators chose to say. An assistant principal at Archbishop Spalding High School in Anne Arundel County, Md., told me the school had no valedictorian in 1997 because the senior who earned the honor the year before gave a speech referring to “forced religion” and “hypocrisy” at the Catholic school. This seemed wrong, the vice principal said, for a commencement address given at a Mass. The school has since resumed naming a valedictorian, but a committee picks the graduation speakers.
When I surveyed 78 public and private schools in the region in 2002, 50 percent no longer had the student with the top GPA giving a graduation speech. Speakers were instead selected by student vote, oratory contests or other means.
The controversy hasn’t died. This May, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh denounced a North Carolina district’s decision to eliminate both valedictorians and salutatorians. He said the new policy was designed to “punish achievement” and “just dumb everybody down.” But I see no reliable evidence that the decline of the valedictorian has had any effect on American teenage striving for grades that will impress colleges.
Schools want a tone at graduation that suits their communities, and that varies from place to place. Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, said, “I have a range of students stand for recognition for everything from those who played varsity sports to those who have 3.5 GPA and above.” But, he added, “no names are mentioned.”
Two very different D.C. schools, the academic magnet Benjamin Banneker Academic High and the regular enrollment Cardozo Education Campus, still honor the valedictorian tradition. Another D.C. magnet, the School Without Walls, did the same but will switch next year to the Latin honor system. Grades will determine who is summa cum laude, magna cum laude or cum laude.
That’s nice. I swallowed my disappointment and congratulated the two valedictorians in my class, Sue Cloninger and Georgjean Plato, that night in 1963. They both became skilled psychologists and probably understood exactly what I was feeling.
The Education Page is on hiatus and will return for the coming school year.