Until two weeks ago, J. J. Kasper believed he was valedictorian of Severna Park High School's 2000 graduating class. He was recognized as the class' academic leader at the school's awards ceremony and at two graduation rehearsals.
School officials told him to write a valedictory speech.
But on May 22, Kasper learned that he had been bumped from the top spot after school officials calculated the final class rankings. The difference between him and the new valedictorian, Robert Schaefer, is little more than one-hundredth of a point.
Kasper's GPA is 4.5312; Schaefer's is 4.5425.
When Severna Park High's principal refused to name the students co-valedictorians, as requested by Kasper and his mother, Mary Kasper, the two appealed the decision to the county school board -- to no avail.
The board upheld Principal Mary Gable's decision after an emergency hearing Thursday night to consider the matter.
The fractional difference between the two GPAs boils down to the fact that Kasper took one more academic course than Schaefer. Ironically, it was a technicality over his decision to take Latin that knocked him out of the top spot -- though he earned an A for the course.
"I feel very sorry that we're in a school system that I had thought valued academic proficiency, but instead values playing a point game," the mother said. "The message is: 'Stay out of class and you will raise your GPA.' "
Especially upsetting, said Kasper, was that her son was identified at two graduation rehearsals as the class valedictorian, after he and Schaefer had been told by school officials that it was almost definite their rankings would be reversed.
"The humiliation of this thing is unforgiveable," she said.
Kasper, an English teacher at Northeast High School in Pasadena, said she plans to contact state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick about the matter.
"When you get down to .01, it's too close to rank," she said.
County school board members said that Thursday's hearing -- thought to be the first of its kind in Anne Arundel -- was one of the most difficult in their memory.
"This was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make on the board," said D. Andrew Smith, its student member.
As valedictorian at Annapolis High School this year, Smith voted against having co-valedictorians after hearing 4 1/2 hours of testimony from Severna Park staff, county school officials and Kasper
"Both of them were so exceptional and so well-prepared academically," said Smith, who graduated last week. "But I didn't see anything wrong with how the staff at Severna Park handled the situation."
No written policy
While the hearing focused on one case, school board members said it raised a troubling question about how county high schools select the valedictorian and second-place salutatorian.
They were surprised to learn that the board has no written policy defining how the rankings should be calculated.
"Certainly it has to be looked at," said board member Janet Bury. "But the principal followed the practice that has been followed at most high schools."
Throughout high school, Kasper and Schaefer have been straight-A model students. Both young men said they had taken the toughest courses possible -- not to boost their GPAs, but to learn.
The conflict over the valedictorian spot stems from a mathematical calculation involving "quality points" added for honors courses, and the total number of course credits earned over the four years.
Kasper had 24 credits; Schaefer had 23.5.
The difference stems from Kasper's choice to take Latin during his senior year, while Schaefer chose to work as a volunteer school office aide for one semester. In calculating GPAs, quality points are divided by the number of credits -- and Schaefer came out on top by that hundredth of a point.
In testimony at the board hearing, Gable said she based her decision on precedent at Severna Park and on the practices of other county high schools.
Eight schools, including Severna Park, calculated valedictorian and salutatorian based on grades from eight semesters -- a full four years of high school. The other five high schools assign rankings using seven semesters of work.
Had Kasper attended one of those high schools, he would have remained valedictorian, board member Michael McNelly observed.
McNelly repeatedly asked Gable about the equity of the process.
"Rob had the highest GPA, therefore he deserves the recognition," Gable testified. "We have followed the procedure and have done it accurately as we're expected to do."
When discussing the valedictorian issue with Kasper before May 22, Severna Park administrators testified, they told him that all rankings were unofficial and subject to final semester grades.
Schaefer, who will study electrical engineering in an honors program at University of Maryland, College Park, said he was pleased with the board's finding.
And Kasper, who earned an A in every course he took in county schools, was gracious about it.
"I'm fine being salutatorian," said Kasper, headed for an honors program at the University of Virginia.
But Kasper said he plans to address the topic of class rankings in his salutatorian speech today in commencement ceremonies being held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.