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We're Number 1!

Being named valedictorian has long been considered the pinnacle of success among high achieving high school students.

But according to a recent Washington Post article, an increasing number of high schools are dropping the practice of identifying students by their class rank.

Is this a case of “Lake Wobegon Syndrome” in which schools don’t want to admit that not every student is above average? Is there a fear that students’ feelings will be hurt to find out they aren’t the winners? Are we reduced to handing out participation ribbons instead of honoring those few students whose academic credentials are the strongest in the class? Indeed, some high schools are bestowing the title of valedictorian on any student who has above a 4.0 average.

Individual high schools insist that the move allows students to concentrate on learning for its own sake rather than the cut-throat race to an artificial goal. Or that refusing to rank students eliminates strategic efforts to manipulate the system just to gain one one-hundredth of a GPA point.

And if you think being valedictorian is a ticket to admissions to an elite college, consider the math:  There are over 21,000 high schools in the US, each having one or more students whose GPAs are the highest in the class. The seven Ivy League colleges collectively admit around 14,000 students. Even if each of these institutions admitted ONLY valedictorians (and they don’t), more than 33% of valedictorians wouldn’t make the cut. Moreover, some of the most elite colleges in the country are finding that a smaller proportion of admitted students have class ranks for them to consider. Swarthmore notes that 44% of its most recently admitted class was ranked; at Dartmouth, fewer than a third.

Because fewer high schools are publishing class rank, and because each school may use a different formula for weighting honors, accelerated and AP courses in a final GPA, many colleges and universities routinely recalculate students’ GPAs to over-ride weighting and compute their own, internal GPA focusing only on core academic courses.

So, yes, it’s great to be number 1. But don’t forget what is probably the most important goal: a rigorous curriculum that demonstrates that you know how to work hard, are willing to tackle subjects outside your comfort zone, and have sampled the most challenging courses offered at your school.

Peggy JenningsComment