My high school alma-matter of two years ago has been in the news a couple times recently. Dublin City Schools, an Ohio school district, is catching attention for graduating over two hundred valedictorians this year. Many of the articles that have covered this are covering in defense of the school system, but the criticisms of this are obvious.
The idea behind it is one I can get behind: the goal isn’t to be better than your schoolmates, but rather to be the best you can be. It doesn’t mean much to be the valedictorian of a terrible school system, and it can be better to be summa cum laude of a much better school. Furthermore, the goal isn’t to be better than your peers just for the sake of being better than your peers.
However, the way that Dublin City Schools changed their system is not how we challenge people to be the best that they can be.
The Washington Post article above derides upsetness with the policy as a result of the “everyone gets a trophy era.” The author argues that students are actually better than they ever have been, and notes that an increasing number of valedictorians reflects that increasing academic achievement.
The number of graduates who took AP courses in high school has nearly doubled in the past decade. The average GPA for graduating high schoolers rose by more than 0.3 points between 1990 and 2009. And the number of students earning a perfect ACT score increased by 120 percent over the past five years. (The total number of students tested increased just 25 percent during that time.)
Perhaps our school systems are better than ten years ago. But given all the clamor about the sinking standards of American schools, and even recognition from liberals that our low standards are failing us, it is more likely that we are simply lowering the bar.
And we are lowering the bar. It’s exceedingly easy to find examples of old tests for middle-school students that modern-day college educated students may have trouble passing. Can these two-hundred valedictorians answer these questions? Only two years out of this school district, I am certain that many graduating seniors would have trouble with all portions of this exam, save perhaps the arithmetic.
The Washington Post article even grants that:
As Harvard’s Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons told The New York Times, the valedictorian distinction is “an anachronism. … In the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”
Why would the Valedictorian title make no real difference if it were given to a solid third of every graduating class? It will begin to mean little more than club membership.
This view more closely jives with my own high school experience. I was a 3.95 student with little to no study time throughout my entire high school experience, even taking a year off for online high school and otherwise running around my neighborhood forsaking academic duties. I knew at the time that it was a joke when all of the clever kids could effortlessly achieve 3.5-4.0 GPAs, and clever kids who studied earned 5.0 GPAs.
When I entered college, and had to study for hours upon hours to achieve a 3.2 GPA, I realized what a tragedy high school was. At the time, it was silly to me that so little work could translate to so much academic achievement. I see now that my school was stripping us of academic challenges in order to make it seem as if we were more competent than we were. Dublin City Schools are touted as some of the best public schools in the state (perhaps the country), so I am loathe to find out what the educational quality of inner city schools is.
Perhaps making Valedictorian a position more than one person can hold is a good move, but making it a position that one-third of the entire graduating class can hold is not. It’s simple economics: the more of something there is to go around, the less valuable it is.
What you don’t think of is that when one out of five students is a valedictorian, two or three of them hold magna cum laude, and two or three of them hold summa cum laude. There was only a fraction of the students who didn’t hold one of the three highest academic honors, and it was treated as if they had done so badly as to fail out of school. (I don’t want to imagine the shame students who failed classes in our high school felt). There was absolutely no meaning in the honor of magna cum laude for me, because I did nothing to earn it.
Many of the valedictorians did not skate by entirely on cleverness, but a failing college student has to study more than a valedictorian with a 5.0 GPA in high school did in 2013, my graduating year. Students graduating right now don’t realize, but a year of college will teach them how woefully underprepared they really are.
We students knew the truth. We knew that the effort it took to achieve summa cum laude was the lowest it had ever been, and we knew that natural cleverness went much farther toward academic achievement than actual study effort. We would joke behind the theatre stage that anyone who wasn’t in either AP Physics BC or IB mathematics classes had no need to study at all. We called valedictorians smart, not hardworking. Grades reflected smartness and IQ in the mind of the student body, not diligence and determination.
There are, no doubt, students within the larger body for whom this was not the case, but it was not many. Only one of my friends I can ever remember studying and not achieving Valedictorian status, and I also remember the shame they felt at having to study. Not having to study hard, not having to study to get a good grade, but shame that they would need to study at all to succeed.