Home > Essays > Annual Valedictorian Battles Underscore Flawed Metrics, Emphasis on Sorting and Selecting that Dominate Public Education… and Create Needless Division and Discord

Annual Valedictorian Battles Underscore Flawed Metrics, Emphasis on Sorting and Selecting that Dominate Public Education… and Create Needless Division and Discord

June 14, 2021

A long time ago during my tenure as Assistant Principal at Darby-Colywn High School a suburban school just outside of Philadelphia, there was a dispute over the calculation for valedictorian. I forget the particulars of debate (it was over 45 years ago), but I recall the animosity the debate generated between the school and the parents affected, between the affected parents, and between the friends of each competing student who lined up behind the respective “combatants” for the top spot at the school. 

This time of year, the newspapers are full of stories about disputes over who is valedictorian, and 2021 is no exception. The two cases grabbing national attention THIS year involve West Point MS and Alpine TX, cases that exemplify racial and economic issues that underly the national debate on fairness and equity in public education. But as a students, parent and educator, I could never understand the obsession with becoming valedictorian.

As a student, my parents made it clear that they expected me to do my best but could accept mostly Bs on my report card. I am certain they would have been pleased if I got into the National Honor Society and they were proud that I did well enough on the National Merit Test that I “earned” a Letter of Commendation, but they never chastised me for my deficiencies or made a big deal out of doing well on a test that took 3 hours. Maybe it was the era I attended school or the classmates I associated with, but I did not have the sense that anyone was obsessed with being the top student or even “making” the National Honor Society. 

As a young administrator, I observed that SOME parents and SOME students had a completely different perspective on grades. Darby-Colwyn, like most high schools in the mid-1970s, did not weight courses and continued to use numeric grades instead of using the methods favored by colleges who gave GPAs by awarding a “4” for each “A”, a “3” for each “B”, and so forth. This meant that a student’s 94 in, say, Chemistry II was worth less than a 99 a student received in an elective like band and meant that the ultimate selection of the valedictorian often hinged on grades given in ELECTIVES. Over the course of my three years at Darby-Colwyn, the Principal and I responded to this seemingly valid complaint by working with the faculty to develop a mechanism of assigning weights to some courses and moving away from letter grades to a GPA. But when the door was closed behind us, we both lamented the need to give any form of “granular” grades. In our perfect world, the high school would focus on getting every child to a mastery level, which we knew was far different than a passing grade. We knew that no matter how the valedictorian was determined there would be some parent who would dispute the means of calculation and the microscopic differential would come down to a single “B” a child got as a sophomore in Underwater Basketweaving. When grades are assigned based on anything other than mastery, this is the inevitable outcome. 

As a parent, when my daughters came home with their first “B” in their first year of high school, I congratulated them for no longer having to worry about being valedictorian and urged them to do the best they could without worrying about how they compared to classmates. 

As I read articles on disputes over who is the Valedictorian I cannot recall reading ANY articles on the absurdity of the competition to rank students or the needless pressure and stress it applies to teachers, parents, and ESPECIALLY students. Worst of all, it leads to arguments over the calculation of each and every grade assigned to students instead of discussions on what the student learned in the class. This is especially the case on the lower end of the spectrum where a PASSING grade is conflated with mastery of the content. This misapplication eventually leads to circumstances where a student who “earned” passing grades fails to demonstrate the ability to perform basic skills that they supposedly mastered because they “passed” a course. 

My advice to the communities in MS and TX being ripped asunder by the microscopic differences between the top students in your graduating class, abandon grading systems that emphasize the false distinctions between the best and brightest and look to using grading systems that determine mastery of the content teachers are providing. 


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