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Don't get rid of the class valedictorian

Don't get rid of the class valedictorian
Arundel High School Principal Gina Davenport presents 2019 valedictorian Richard Osikowics with his diploma. In two years, Anne Arundel high schools will stop naming valedictorians based on their grade point averages. (Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette)

Does getting the best grades in your high school class guarantee future success? Is it the most important measure of a young person’s development? Does the difference of a few hundredths of a percentage point between two students’ GPAs even tell you much about which one is smarter?

Probably not.

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That doesn’t mean schools should throw out the tradition of honoring the student (or in many cases multiple students) with the top grades in the senior class. But that’s exactly what the Anne Arundel County School board, in a close vote, decided to do last week.

In two years the school system will get rid of class rank for high school students. Instead, schools will be allowed to decide valedictorians and salutatorians by looking at character, leadership and other qualities.

The argument is that the battle for valedictorian status is too stressful and bruising to young people’s mental health. They choose rigorous classes to boost their GPAs and pass up fun and interesting activities. Or they take easier classes because they know they can earn an A.

It is indeed true that the skirmish for the honor in some rare cases can turn mean-spirited and overly competitive. Students can try to manipulate the system to win the top prize. Remember the infamous 1993 case in which former Baltimore Colt Stan White sued to try to force Dulaney High School in Towson to name his daughter co-valedictorian of her class? He claimed school officials allowed another girl to take a night course to help her GPA. Baltimore County Circuit Judge Joseph F. Murphy at the time refused to issue the order on the grounds that he had no jurisdiction, and the family decided to drop the issue, according to a story in The Sun.

We think this is the exception and not the rule. In the vast majority of schools, we bet the sought-after title encourages healthy competition and builds life skills, such as persistence, hard work and discipline. It also prepares kids for the competitive environment they will face in the workplace one day. People don’t play nice in the real world. Sometimes your ego will get knocked around a bit.

If a student worked hard to achieve the top grades in the class, they deserve to be honored for it. We have no problem recognizing the top athletes — those who score the most touchdowns or break the record for the 50-yard dash. So why not the top academic achievers too?

Adding leadership and character measures to the equations just muddies the honor with subjectivity. How exactly do you measure these traits, and what do they have to do with academics? Leadership is a fine quality, but it can be recognized with a separate award. We don’t refuse to recognize the basketball player with the best free throw percentage because he is a mediocre leader.

Watering down the honor of valedictorian is just another example of overprotecting our kids and shielding them from unpleasantness in life. It’s along the lines of everybody on the t-ball team getting a participation award rather than teaching kids about good sportsmanship. That sometimes there are losers and sometimes there are winners in life. That you will be good at some things and not so good at others. And that is OK. Find the things you are good at and roll with them.

Rather than eliminating student rankings altogether, how about teaching students that it is not the end of the world if they are not at the top? Success is attainable even without the title of valedictorian on your high school transcript.

A widely known study by Boston College researcher Karen Arnold found that valedictorians tended to do well academically after high school. Ninety-five percent went on to graduate school, and many went on to successful careers. But plenty of other people do the same thing. Indeed, many of the people who are most successful today are outside-the-box thinkers who pursued their passions rather than success in the classroom. Think of all the accomplished business people who dropped out of the regimented life of college to pursue their dreams.

We’ll admit, dropping the tradition of naming of valedictorians based on grade point averages isn’t the biggest deal in the world. The title doesn’t mean that much after the graduation speech, and we’ll bet the academically competitive kids in Arundel high schools will know exactly how they stack up whether the school calculates class ranks or not.

By why take away the thrill for the kids who worked so hard to get it?

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