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Why Can’t We All Be ‘The Best’?

Valedictorian Kyndall Nicholas speaking at her high school graduation
Valedictorian Kyndall Nicholas speaking at the 2015 Meade Senior High School graduation ceremony, Fort Meade, Md.
Photo by Nate Pesce, courtesy the Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office.

I have hired a couple of former high school valedictorians over the years. As you might expect, they were excellent workers – perfectionists, even – and although they both moved on, they made valuable contributions while they were at my company.

I have also hired a lot of outstanding performers who were not valedictorians, at least as far as I know. The label doesn’t make the person. If only one person in a class of dozens or hundreds or even thousands can be valedictorian, that leaves plenty of room for excellence on the part of others.

But still, why get rid of the honor that most of us associate with being the top student in one’s class, however that is defined? The world is a competitive place, after all. We award crowns for everything from “best picture” to “best pizza in town.” That doesn’t mean the other contenders are losers; it often means they are part of an outstanding group from which only one entrant could be considered the most outstanding of all.

Yet increasingly, high schools are declining to name one student their top performer. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Wake County public school system in North Carolina has joined school districts in Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere in jettisoning the practice of naming a valedictorian. The National Association of Secondary School Principals reported that about half of American high schools no longer report class rank at all.

If anything is worse than refusing to name a valedictorian, however, it is naming multiple valedictorians – and the more that are named, the worse it gets. Some schools now name dozens, even occasionally more than 100, of their students “valedictorians.” In these places the meaning of the word has shifted from “student at the very top of his or her class” to “everyone who gets at least a 4.0 GPA.” Talk about social promotion, or grade inflation, or medals for attendance. Declaring everyone is the best is another way of saying nobody deserves to be called the best. (This fact is probably not lost on high schoolers who grew up watching “The Incredibles.”) If you take away the potential to be the best in any way that matters, what is left for truly exceptional students to strive for?

A high GPA is still something to be proud of, but being one valedictorian among dozens hardly carries the same weight as the traditional recognition. And students know it. At least one school – Melrose High School, in the Boston area – reinstated the practice of naming a valedictorian at the request of students themselves.

This does not mean the valedictorian title must automatically go to the student with purely the highest grade-point average. As critics point out, not all averages are created equal – especially not when students can try to manipulate results by choosing less challenging classes or instructors, or by lobbying (or having parents lobby) to improve a damaging grade. Some schools offset the former problem by weighting more challenging courses heavier in the calculation of GPA, but this can create the opposite issue, where high-achieving students shy away from unweighted classes that align with their interests. Either way, a particular school’s weighting formula won’t necessarily be obvious to someone observing from the outside. And weighting can also vastly increase the number of students with GPAs at or above a 4.0.

There are alternatives. A school could select a certain number of nominees based on grades, and then let members of the senior class elect a valedictorian from among the nominees. Sure, in some cases it would become a popularity contest – the Academy Awards are, too. But students themselves are often in the best position to judge the worthiness of their peers for the honor. They also deserve to choose the person who will entertain, bore, inspire or embarrass them with a commencement speech, assuming the school follows the common practice of asking the valedictorian to deliver one.

There are a lot of good arguments for schools to eliminate numerical class ranks for every student. Being in the top 10 percent or 25 percent or 50 percent of one’s class is apt to be much more a reflection of circumstance – the school you attend, and the size and academic talent of your cohort – than an indicator of either achievement or ability. In most cases, knowing that someone was in the 40th percentile or the 60th percentile of a graduating class imparts no useful information.

Some schools, including those in Wake County and Hamilton County, Indiana, are moving to a Latin honor system, where students with sufficiently high GPAs can graduate with distinctions like cum laude, which are certainly no worse and possibly better than a contextless percentile in conveying a student’s academic achievement. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has reported that colleges are increasingly dropping class rank as an important factor in admissions decisions anyway, perhaps in part because so many schools no longer provide rankings. But as long as some colleges still consider class rank in admission – and sometimes scholarship – decisions, high schools are not off-base to think that ranking every student may do more harm than good.

But singling out a single student whose achievement merits individual recognition takes nothing away from anyone else. Colleges and employers might be impressed by a valedictorian award, but they don’t insist that candidates have them. Even the greatest teams usually have a most valuable player. Awarding that honor to half the roster would leave nobody better off.

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