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Tradition of Naming Top Student gets Dropped by High Schools

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More institutions are naming multiple valedictorians—or none at all

Ryan Walters has loaded up on advanced classes, studied until the wee hours and composed possible graduation speeches in his head as the high-school junior worked to be valedictorian at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, N.C.

But neither he nor any of his classmates will hold the title.

The Wake County Public School System, the 15th-largest in the nation, won’t have valedictorians after this school year, joining other districts that have moved away from lauding a single-highest performer.

“I think it’s pretty stupid, and I don’t think it’s fair,” says Mr. Walters, 16 years old. “Wake County is instilling in us that we shouldn’t try to be the best.”

It’s getting lonely at the top of the class in high school—or very crowded—as more schools alter or do away with the traditional role of valedictorian. While some schools no longer hail a single student with the best grade-point average, others are granting the distinction to anyone who gets at least a 4.0 GPA. And that is increasingly common as certain honors, or advanced-level classes, tend to grant higher than a 4.0 for an A.

At least half of U.S. states have schools that have stopped naming valedictorians, or now name multiple, to head off what school officials say has become unhealthy competition among students.

In recent weeks, Brown County Schools in Nashville, Ind., and Mehlville School District in St. Louis, decided to phase out naming valedictorians. Other districts around the country are discussing similar moves.

Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., had 178 valedictorians last school year, or 1 in every 3 graduates. Valedictorians are those who achieved at least a 4.0 grade-point average. Every valedictorian is ranked No. 1 in the class.

Murfreesboro, Tenn.’s Central Magnet School had a record-breaking 48 valedictorians last school year, a quarter of its graduating class. Awardees achieve the highest grade point average, take a minimum of 12 higher-level courses and meet state requirements to graduate with honors and distinction.

James Evans, spokesman in Rutherford County Schools, where Central Magnet is located, said the school has a lot of high achievers. “We’re pretty proud,” he said.

More schools also no longer calculate numerical rankings for students—information still used by some colleges—out of fear that students missing higher rankings by a few points could be hurt in the college-acceptance process, or passed over for scholarships.

“We found that it’s shutting our students out from some really positive opportunities,” said Scott Martzloff, superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District in western New York, where the school board in September approved the elimination of class ranking. “I think it causes a lot of stress and unhealthy competition.”

But backlash is growing in some areas of the country, with students at the top of their class as well as their parents saying that high performance is being cast aside or diluted in the name of fairness.

“If everybody is called valedictorian, it doesn’t mean anything,” said Deborah Morley, whose daughter attends Exeter Union High School in Exeter, Calif., where all students with at least a 4.0 GPA can be valedictorian starting this school year.

At least one school, Melrose High School, outside of Boston, recently bucked the trend by going back to naming valedictorians after hearing from students. The new rule, approved in April after a school year without a valedictorian, awards the title to the student with the highest GPA.

“That was really important to people, especially the kids,” said Principal Jason Merrill.

Some school administrators say competing for a single valedictorian spot can be stressful and deter students from taking challenging courses or electives, such as music and art, that don’t usually bring additional academic points.

Wake County schools spokeswoman Lisa Luten said the district changed its policy in part because “principals were noticing that students were selecting courses for the possibility of increasing their grade point average,” and not making choices that align with their interests.

Jason Lee, the 2016 valedictorian at the district’s Heritage High School, has mixed feelings on the new model.

“I saw the ugly side of it—strained friendships, competition and conspiracy,” said Mr. Lee, 18, when everyone was competing for the top spot. “And then I saw what could come of mutual struggling—study groups and chat groups, bonds.”

Wake County is one of a number of school districts moving to the Latin honor system, to honor more high-achieving students who can receive distinctions such as summa cum laude, like at the college level.

While Wake County students will still receive an individual ranking, some of the school districts adopting the Latin system say that ranking is unnecessary. The percentage of colleges that consider rank of “considerable importance” for admission for first-time freshmen has declined in recent years, from 23% in 2006 to 14% in 2014, according to the latest figures from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“You do hear from colleges or universities that it is helpful for them to see how a student might place in his or her class when they look at an application,” said David Hawkins, an executive director at the association.

But he said other methods are used much more than rank to assess students, such as grades for advanced, college-prep courses, which was by far the most important admission factor in 2014.

The shift away from individual ranking and naming valedictorians means districts have been forced to find other ways to determine which student will give the graduation speech, an honor once reserved for the top achiever.

At Washington-Lee, where the practice of having multiple valedictorians has been in place many years, a random drawing of all interested valedictorians determines who gives the speech. The average number of students requesting to give the speech ranges from 20 to 30, a spokesman said.

In Wake County, Heritage High hasn’t decided how it will choose graduation speakers. But some schools already using the Latin system select from students who submit a speech.

“It’s going to be weird to see how they do it,” said Mr. Walters, the junior, whose parents were valedictorians and wanted him to have a chance at the honor. “Wake County is recognizing mediocrity, not greatness.”

Source:  Tawnell D. Hobbs, wsj.com