TCS Daily


Vanishing Valedictorians

By Joanne Jacobs - June 24, 2002 12:00 AM

My daughter gave the commencement speech at her high school graduation in 1999. She wasn't Palo Alto High's valedictorian. There isn't one.

Valedictorians are vanishing; class rank is déclassé. Sixty percent of high schools don't rank students by grades, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The valedictorian is a victim of educators' hostility to measuring merit. Honoring students with high grades is considered elitist, stressful and bad for the self-esteem of so-so students. Class rank recognizes grade-grubbing conformists, educators say, not creative learners.

Of course, it is elitist. Just as Most Valuable Player goes to the most valuable player and first chair goes to the violinist, valedictorian goes to the top student. Nobody complains that the clumsy and slow don't win varsity letters. Yet when smart, hard-working students win academic honors, that's considered unfair to their duller and ditzier classmates.

Stress is a reality for top students striving for admission to elite colleges. They're expected to earn A's in the hardest possible courses -- and play a sport, lead an extra-curricular activity and serve tasty, nutritious meals to the homeless. Some go to absurd lengths to boost their grade point averages. But eliminating class rank doesn't relieve the pressure. Just ask Palo Alto High's college-crazed juniors and seniors.

As for the self-esteem argument, it's silly. Students see through the self-esteem hype in first grade. Even the slow kids know there's nothing special about being "I am special" when next week some other kid will be just as "special."

Valedictorians tend to be students who play by the system's rules, not the allegedly brilliant rebels. (I've noticed most rebels are considerably less brilliant than they think they are.) But you don't see stupid swots finishing first in the class unless it's a very small class. It's the smart swot who wins the prize -- if there is one.

Often, there is no single student who's first in the class. Thanks to grade inflation, dozens of students may earn straight A's. Some schools make all students above a certain GPA a valedictorian. Or they emulate colleges and give out magna, summa and cum laude diplomas. Lots of kids can walk away happy.

Class rank fell first at affluent suburban high schools and private schools where students who miss the top 10 percent may be stronger academically than the valedictorians of Urban Horror High and Hicksville Academy. Private schools also felt pressure from parents who were paying top dollar for tuition and expected top billing for their kids.

Here's a telling paragraph from a 1999 Wall Street Journal story:

"We try to celebrate our students equally," says Susan Kastner Tree, director of counseling at private Westtown School near Philadelphia. But then she continues: "Rank can really blackball kids." She adds: "Parents are paying much too much money to have their kids in the bottom half of the class."

So what happens when grades lose their meaning and class rank isn't reported? College admissions officers put more stress on SAT scores, that's what. The most advantaged students get a boost; it's not so good for Urban Horror and Hicksville grads.

That's why the campaign to devalue test scores and grades is turning to class rank. In Texas and California, public universities can't use racial or ethnic preferences in admissions any more. Favoring low-income students doesn't produce the racial/ethnic results the universities want. (In California, high-achieving, low-income Vietnamese students ruin this scheme.)

So the University of Texas now admits all Texas students who ranked in the top 10 percent of their public high school class, regardless of grades or test scores. As long as schools are segregated, that will produce the desired diversity. The University of California does the same for the top four percent of each class.

High schools must calculate which students are in the top four or 10 percent -- but not necessarily who is first in the class. In schools that don't name a valedictorian, that information is a closely guarded secret.

Adults are the ones trying to sell the line that everyone is special, which means that nobody is especially special. I think kids instinctively respect excellence. Grades aren't everything. But they're the way schools measure academic achievement, which is supposed to be schools' primary goal.

At the end of the year, students are honored for athletic and artistic excellence, for school spirit and community service. Great. I'm all for it. But let's also honor academic achievers. Viva the valedictorians.

Joanne Jacobs, who ranked 16th in her high school class, is writing a book, "Start-Up High: A Charter School Teaches the American Dream." She also writes "Quick Reads" on education at readJacobs.com.

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