In the final week of May, 222 graduates from one Ohio school district flung their caps in the air while claiming the same title: valedictorian. One in every five graduates from Dublin City Schools went home with that highest academic honor. The district’s valedictorian roll has been rising for years. In 2014, I graduated as one of 72 valedictorians from Dublin Jerome High School.
Understandably, these numbers confuse a lot of people. How can more than one student earn the highest GPA? How can more than one give the valedictory speech at graduation? Every class can have just one highest achiever, right? Generally, that’s true. But the administrators of Dublin school district, and a growing number of school districts across the country, see things differently. In Dublin, every student earning a GPA above 4.1 is deemed a valedictorian. Traditionalists argue that this system degrades the distinction. Maybe so, but the merits of this approach are far greater. Creating a system that promotes personal achievement over unhealthy competition and that rewards hard-working students without hindering anyone’s ability to succeed should be applauded.
Some have derided the rise of multiple valedictorians as a product of the “everyone gets a trophy” era. They suggest that today’s students are coddled, and insist that recognizing so many students is simply an effort to boost our self-esteem. This view overlooks the fact that today’s students actually are more academically accomplished than previous generations. The number of graduates who took AP courses in high school has nearly doubled in the past decade. The average GPA for graduating high schoolers rose by more than 0.3 points between 1990 and 2009. And the number of students earning a perfect ACT score increased by 120 percent over the past five years. (The total number of students tested increased just 25 percent during that time.) Academic excellence can be achieved by more than one student in a class, and the numbers show that today’s multiple valedictorians are achieving more than the single valedictorians of yesterday.
It’s true that, at first glance, lowering the bar for valedictorian seems to water down the distinction. But ultimately, there’s no real harm. Students from my class still got into Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, even though they shared the valedictorian title with dozens of others. The fairness of the college admissions process isn’t threatened by this trend. For college admissions officers, class rank is only the eighth most important factor in evaluating a student, falling just below counselor recommendations. A student’s grades, strength of curriculum, ACT/SAT scores and essay have much higher value, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. As Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons told The New York Times, the valedictorian distinction is “an anachronism. … In the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”
Recognizing multiple valedictorians eliminates the unhealthy competition created by a system that awards just one winner. Instead, it emphasizes student learning over student rank, rewarding us for taking academically rigorous courses without pitting us against each other. During my senior year, I took four AP and IB courses in hopes of getting my GPA high enough to earn valedictorian status. For me, the distinction was especially important because my high school allows all valedictorians to apply to be the graduation speaker, and I really enjoy public speaking.
One of our local high school principals, Bob Scott, said the speaker-selection process encourages students to push themselves academically without the competition of ranking: “This selection process gives kids who wouldn’t normally go above and beyond in school an extra incentive to do so,” he told me. “Normally, a student with just short of the 4.1 mark wouldn’t have an incentive to take the more weighted AP or IB course senior year. But giving them a chance to speak at graduation might be the push they need.” It certainly was for me. I had barely squeaked out a 4.106 GPA by the time the speech selection committee (a group of students, teachers and administrators selected by the principal) was formed in March. The committee selects one male and one female speaker — not by highest GPA, but by the most worthy speech.
On the speech tryout day, I waited in my high school library with 15 other anxious soon-to-be grads. They were all pretty good students, but they had a variety of talents; they included state championship athletes, esteemed musicians and the student who would earn the “most school spirit” superlative. My goal was to write a speech that was truly representative of our class, reflecting the common experiences of all students and recognizing the importance of athletic and artistic achievements, as well as academic. I wanted to craft an engaging speech that all of us could relate to, not just those few with extremely high GPAs. When the committee called me in, I gave my best go at it, and then went home to eat some Oreos and watch an episode of “Friends” on TBS. A few days later, I was notified that I had been chosen to speak before my peers at graduation.
When my turn came to speak on graduation day, I rose awkwardly from my seat, climbed the risers and enthusiastically delivered my speech to my classmates and their families. A fellow graduate’s father, whom I had not met, heard my address and recommended me for an internship at a political consulting firm. That internship helped me get into Ohio State University, to where I am transferring next semester. It also has the potential to shape my professional career path, giving me the kind of edge on future job applications that Harvard students don’t necessarily need.
Through the expansion of the valedictorian title, students who may not have had the opportunity to prove themselves get a chance, with no harm done to their peers. There are many academic honors that recognize multiple students: honor rolls, National Honor Society, and dean’s lists, to name a few. Academia knows that recognizing excellence in many doesn’t diminish the achievements of one. The goal of any educational program should be to push students to reach their fullest academic potential, and systems like Dublin’s do just that.
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