Southampton School District officials said this week that last week’s decision to do away with the traditional class ranking system, and special honors for the valedictorian and salutatorian, is designed to acknowledge the hard work of more students, rather than honoring just two.
And while a valedictorian and a salutatorian won’t deliver graduation speeches at the end of the 2013-14 school year, a speaker will be chosen by a high school commencement committee from the group of top students, as will a speaker who represents the entire graduating class.
Last week, the Southampton School Board decided that high school honor students will no longer compete for individual valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions, but will instead be recognized with group honors distinctions, as cum laude (“with honors,” 89 percent grade point average and above), magna cum laude (“high honors,” 92 percent GPA and above), or summa cum laude (“highest honors,” 95 percent GPA and above).
The prospect of eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions sparked significant debate among parents, teachers and board members over the past several months as the district’s policy committee reviewed and suggested changes to the ranking policy. Some said that doing away with the traditional titles would eliminate competition and squelch ambition within the high school student body.
Despite those fears, school officials maintained that the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions served little purpose, especially since the district will stop ranking students altogether starting with the class of 2014.
The decision to become a non-ranking school was made in 2009, when the board found that ranking forces students to take classes that carry the most weight, like Advanced Placement courses, and penalizes students for taking classes that are most relevant to them or interest them most, like music, art and technology, many of which do not have an AP component.
As the 2013-14 school year approaches, the policy committee decided to take another look at honors distinctions this year and concluded that since ranking will no longer occur, to keep a valedictorian and salutatorian distinction would be contrary to the board’s change in policy, since the titles are based on weighting and ranking. The group honors distinctions will be based on grade point averages and not formulaic rankings.
“Why rank two students when the district is not ranking the rest of their class?” asked Dr. Kim Rodriguez, the director of college and career counseling and a member of the policy committee. “This opens up the competition. Instead of one person at the pinnacle, there will be three or five.”
Concern that new the policy will stifle healthy competition has risen among parents, because there will no longer be a top two. Some have compared the change to playing sports without keeping score, but Southampton School Superintendent Dr. J. Richard Boyes said that’s an unfair analogy.
“I don’t think there’s a good comparison between academics and sports,” he said. “Academics should encourage kids to explore their interests and to work hard, but I don’t think it should be about being number one. I think there’s room for more than one student in the top group. When I see the difference of a tenth of a point between valedictorian and salutatorian, I don’t believe there is a qualitative difference between those students.”
According to Dr. Rodriguez’s findings, over the past three years, only a small number of students—between three and eight—would have qualified for summa cum laude, with a grade point average of 95 or higher. All of the students who would have qualified for summa cum laude took an average of 10 honors and an average of eight AP courses, she said.
After examining the issue for seven months, the policy committee concluded that the “intense competition” for valedictorian honors was putting “undue stress” on students. The committee also said that “gamesmanship” among students, where specific classes are taken primarily to bump up a ranking, has been a concern, and eliminating the system would help alleviate the situation.
In 2008, a high school senior’s parent complained to the board that the way the school ranked its courses was unfair and questioned the validity of the valedictorian’s and salutatorian’s academic standing. While the incident was not the reason for the policy change, according to Dr. Rodriguez, it certainly prodded the policy committee toward examining the ranking system.