High Schools Throughout Nation Changing Valedictorian Standards

Alex Pfeiffer White House Correspondent
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The title of high school valedictorian, historically given to the most academically successful student, is changing throughout the country, with some schools designating as many as a quarter of the graduating class as valedictorians, The Washington Post reports.

“That high school diploma declares you all winners,” said Patrick J. Mannarino, North Hills School District Superintendent, told the Post.

Much of the the thought process behind this shifting definition of what is a valedictorian, comes from the idea that competition should be removed from the learning environment.

Julia Jaynes, 17, graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic sharing the title of valedictorian with 29 other students, her school changed the policy to remove stress. Jaynes told The Washington Post though that her friend stayed home from school after receiving her first B senior year.

This changing view on what a valedictorian means is also playing a role in the modern college process.

“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,” said Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, according to the Post.

He remembers getting an applicant whose high school reported that every student had finished in the top half of their class. Bock said, “It’s sort of like the Lake Wobegon effect, where everybody is above average, where everyone is No. 1.”

Bock believes a culture that believes all students are exemplary is behind this shift.

Obviously not all schools have eliminated or changed the distinction of being a valedictorian, Fiona Young, the 2014 valedictorian of Connecticut’s Greenwich High School.

Young said going into high school, “I wanted to set a goal for myself that embodied what I really valued. 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.”

At Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., a quarter of the graduating class were named “valedictorians.” To become one at the school, one needs a 4.0 GPA, which are more common now than ever before with the strong push for students to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Grades in AP courses are weighted more heavily than standard ones.

This comes with a parallel shift in how colleges view class rank, in a 2013 survey of 352 colleges, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that just 15 percent of colleges saw class rank as a factor of “considerable importance,” in 1993, 42 percent of colleges thought it was important in the admissions process.

This is with reason, when one looks at what is happening in Long Beach’s school district. The school did away with using weighted GPAs, all for the purpose of making it easier to become valedictorian.

“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, head counselor of the district.