In a simpler time, each high school graduating class had one student as valedictorian and another student as salutatorian. In determining who these students were, high school administrators used the following straightforward process — the valedictorian was the student ranked first in the class and the salutatorian was ranked second. Voila!
Since then, valedictorians have proliferated at most graduation ceremonies until the honor has lost its meaning. High schools around the country have changed their procedures to allow multiple students to share the number one spot. As early as 1998, the highly regarded high schools of Howard County, Maryland, drew three names by lottery from among students who had volunteered for the honor. In Los Angeles in 2001, Chatsworth High School had 31 valedictorians, Cleveland High had 20, Granada Hills High had 44, Monroe High had 17, North Hollywood High had 10, and San Fernando High had 8. Although there are exceptions, this trend has by now swept the nation’s high schools.
Critics of this development make sarcastic comparisons to the “participation trophies” awarded to avoid hurt feelings. Is high school a little league team? Supporters point out the statistically insignificant differences that separate GPAs. What do you tell the 21st ranked student if only the first 20 are valedictorians?
“It was the egalitarian idea that we shouldn’t have anybody be better than anybody else,” said Los Angeles teacher Phil Chase (New Times Los Angeles).
“If one person got very, very good grades and was singled out as valedictorian, we might be saying they are better than other kids. And we can’t have that.” He continued, “If somebody doesn’t feel good about not being valedictorian or salutatorian, maybe they should work harder.”
In 2017, half of high schools no longer calculate and report class rank. Others consider class rank to be secret and release it directly to a college only if the student needs it for a scholarship. This has created a problem for college admissions officers. Can class rank still be used as a factor in the assessment of applicants if half of them attended schools that don’t provide it?
High school officials have de-emphasized or eliminated class rankings because they want students to focus on their own goals and accomplishments without worrying where they may end up in their class rank. With the proliferation of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, which can boost a student’s GPA above 4.0, emphasizing rank can induce students to register for too many difficult courses. High school administrators feel that students should select courses without concern about class rank.
Some administrators consider rankings to be obsolete in an era of high expectations for every student. They’re also cognizant of the impact on the prospective college admission chances of students who may be separated by large differences in class rank but only small disparities in GPAs.
College admissions officers lament the decline of GPA in the use of class rank, which have been a useful metric to assess a student in the context of his or her high school. Rank became even more useful since uneven grading standards and varying grading scales have skewed GPAs. One student’s GPA can’t be subjectively compared with those of students from other schools. Complicating matters is the fact that many, but not all, teachers now grade less rigorously than was the case in the past. This has moved the bell curve to the right so that students with very high GPAs are no longer high-end outliers; they’re clustered.
It has become more difficult for colleges to assess and separate the worthy from the rest by assigning heavy weights to class rank and GPA. Now, only about half of colleges place “considerable” weight on GPAs as an admissions factor, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, (although 85% weigh grades in AP/IB courses heavily). Without class rank and reliable GPA data to consider, other factors such as SAT/ACT test scores, extracurricular activities, essays, subject tests, and interviews have come to play an expanded role in college admissions decisions.
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