The top student in a high school’s graduating class used to earn the honor of being the valedictorian, and traditionally that one student delivered a commencement speech that helped send his or her classmates out into the adult world.
But at Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School this year, there were 117 valedictorians out of a class of 457. At Long Beach Polytechnic in California, there were 30. And at some schools — including North Hills High outside of Pittsburgh and high schools in Miami — there were none.
The nation’s high schools are changing the way they recognize top students, struggling to balance praise for them while also quelling unhealthy competition among classmates as the college application process grows more cutthroat.
The result? Some say schools have deflated the meaning of a well-earned and time-honored accolade while also vexing college admissions officers, who don’t know if a student finished first or 100th in the class. Others say getting rid of valedictorians entirely allows students to focus on their achievements without worrying about where they fall in the pecking order.
“Education’s not a game. It’s not about ‘I finished first and you finished second,’ ” said North Hills Superintendent Patrick J. Mannarino, who was the North Hills High principal when the school got rid of the valedictorian designation in 2009. “That high school diploma declares you all winners.”
Long Beach Polytechnic designates all students who earn straight A’s valedictorians, even though some students can have higher grade-point averages from taking Advanced Placement courses.
Julia Jaynes, 17, who shared the valedictorian title with 29 others, said that if her school chose only one, it would destroy collegiality among her classmates. “If everyone wants to be the best, I feel like there’d be less collaboration,” she said. “It makes it so you’re only out for yourself.”
Believing that the honor should be reserved solely for the student with top grades, some schools continue to select only one valedictorian. At the selective Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, that tradition still holds, Principal Joyce Kenner said.
“I don’t plan to change our system as long as I’m principal,” Kenner said, adding that allowing multiple valedictorians “would water down the valedictorian title.”
Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, recalled an applicant whose Midwestern high school reported that every student finished in the top half of the class. He worries that allowing several students to share a top rank diminishes the achievement of a student who otherwise would have been alone in the top spot.
“It’s sort of like the Lake Wobegon effect, where everybody is above average, where everyone is No. 1,” Bock said. “When you have what I think is an artificial ranking, is that really meaningful? I would say for selective admissions, that’s not doing them a service.”
And Bock worries that a culture of overachievement — the idea that all students must be extraordinary — is driving the shift. “They’ve got to be not just good but stellar,” he said, “when it’s okay not to be.”
David Hawkins, executive director of educational content and policy at the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, said colleges are weighing rank less in the admissions process, perhaps because so many high schools no longer provide it. In a survey of 352 colleges in 2013, the association found that just 15 percent of colleges weighed class rank as a factor of “considerable importance” in admissions. In 1993, 42 percent of schools surveyed considered it an important factor.
The process of choosing a valedictorian also has risen in complexity because more students are taking multiple Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, where A’s are worth more than top grades in standard courses. A 4.0 is no longer considered the gold standard of academic performance when weighted grade-point averages can be much higher; Gerri Zhang, the valedictorian at Whitney M. Young, had a 5.3 GPA.
Guidance counselors and principals worry that students who want to be a school’s lone valedictorian will forgo taking classes that will not boost their GPA — such as band or drama. In Long Beach, the school district did away with using weighted GPAs to determine valedictorians so students could take the courses they wanted without hurting their chances of earning the title.
“For our students to be in those programs and have it bring their GPAs down is really not valuing what we value in those programs,” said Gayle Mashburn, the head counselor.
At Washington-Lee, all students with a weighted GPA of 4.0 and above are named valedictorian and share the No. 1 rank. The school has pushed all students to take at least one advanced course, which is in part how a quarter of the school’s graduating students became valedictorians this year.
The district set the valedictorian policy, but Principal Gregg Robertson has no qualms about it.
At California State University at Long Beach, students who are valedictorians or the top student in their class are eligible for the highly selective President’s Scholar program, which covers full tuition and room and board. The program is strict about the requirement: About once a year, the university rescinds an offer to a student who fell to No. 2.
The program was created to entice more elite students to the beach-side campus in a state that includes academic heavyweights such as UCLA and UC Berkeley.
“We can compete, and one of the things we can do to show that is that the top students — the best — come to Long Beach,” said Valerie Bordeaux, director of the President’s Scholar program.
The well-known program has influenced some high schools to change their policies to allow more students to be valedictorian so they can be eligible to apply, Bordeaux said.
Valedictorians — both those who shared the honor with several classmates and those who stood alone — said class ranks and academic superlatives are just two elements of the competitive and stressful experience of angling to get into elite colleges.
“Even if they got rid of the title and there were no rankings, I think kids would still be pushing themselves and being stressed about the future and their grades,” said Zhang, who will head to the University of Chicago this fall on a full scholarship. She called the competition among her classmates “friendly.”
Even at Long Beach Polytechnic, where the school changed the policy to reduce the stress around the designation, Jaynes said a friend who got her first B during her senior year was so distraught she stayed home from school. The stakes were high for Jaynes, too: Her shot at becoming a President’s Scholar was riding on her becoming a valedictorian.
Jaynes and the other valedictorians at her school say the system is a good one — even if it cut out those who fell a few points short in a single class.
“I think our system is as fair as you can make it in a system that will always be imperfect,” Jaynes said.
But some said it is an honor they would not want to share. Fiona Young, who was the lone 2014 valedictorian at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn., set her sights on earning the title early in high school.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be the sports captain. I wasn’t going to be prom king or queen . . . so I wanted to set a goal for myself that embodied what I really valued,” said Young, now a rising sophomore at Harvard. “Giving my speech, being up there and seeing the sea of people . . . and knowing that I was the only one, that’s a feeling I would not want to give up.”