We’re coming into graduation season, replete with caps, gowns, and proud parents — while the prospective valedictorians fight for the last one-thousandth of a point. Let’s stop and rethink this.
First, we are all in favor of recognizing academic excellence. Students who work hard and play by the rules, upholding school values and respecting teacher feedback, deserve to be recognized. That is best achieved with the “Latin honors” system: highest honors, high honors, and honors, or summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude. Schools can set objective criteria for those designations, including not just grade-point averages, but also integrity, service, and otherwise upholding school values. It’s possible that in some years no students earn highest honors, and in other years more than one student earns that designation. It is far more fair and accurate than the presumption that the 3.99995 student is superior to the 3.9994 student.
The most troubling part of the valedictorian system is not just the mathematical absurdity of it -- a classic case of a distinction without a difference -- but the inequity of it. Most schools have a “quality point” system in which college credits earn extra points for the grade-point average. This means that the student who, thanks to affluent parents, doesn’t have to have a summer job and can take some extra college classes has an advantage over the student who must work a summer job. But think about it: Which student is better prepared for college and the world of work, the one who never had to work in the summer, or the one whose work ethic was honed as a teenager? The other troubling part of “quality points” is the impact on courses that don’t have those extra points, such as music, art, drama, and physical education. School leaders and policy makers talk a good game about 21st-Century skills and the need for creativity, but they systemically undermine the arts when aspiring valedictorians know that spending any time in the creative arts might deny them the prize as the #1 graduate.
We can do better. We can honor academic excellence without undermining the arts and without giving unfair advantages to students who don’t have to work summer jobs. We need academic honors, but we don’t need valedictorian labels anymore.