Viewpoint

It came to me far too late in my career as an educator and school coach: the startling realization that for a student to graduate from most American high schools as a valedictorian or salutatorian, they must begin ninth grade already earning high A’s. They must always earn A’s—every year in every course, and they must enroll in the school’s highest available course levels. For most high school graduates, their access to these esteemed titles is probably cast in the first few weeks of ninth grade.

Students earning either of these two prestigious positions often benefit from the following:

  • They have been recommended for placement in honors or AP sections from day one.
  • They have followed their GPA assiduously across their high school career; they may have advocated for better grades, appealed their grades, or completed extra work. The A was most often fairly deserved, but the grade itself was the goal.
  • They have made course selection choices strategically, preferentially selecting courses with the highest weighting or the “easiest A.”
  • They have learned how to work the rules and norms of high school exceptionally well.
  • They have had the support of at least one well-educated parent or another significant role model, access to educational vacations, books in the home, and possibly tutors.
  • They are disproportionately privileged and white.

Awarding honor parts in graduation ceremonies exemplifies our culture’s desire to celebrate excellence and also our expectation for “winners.” And in my view, honor parts as defined solely by these values need to end. Why? Because there are significant costs and lost opportunities. Among these are:

  • Losers. With two honor parts in a graduation ceremony, that means everyone else is, by default, a loser of that honor. I am not arguing that everyone needs the proverbial participation award. Still, it is true that in every graduating class there are at least dozens of honorable stories of achievement, adversity conquered, success over time after a shaky start, and excelling in nonacademic ways. None of those stories can be told in a system that only honors two peak achievers, especially when “achievement” is defined so narrowly.
  • Lost stories of achievement. Because our current honorees are usually students who entered high school at high levels of achievement, we lose out on the chance to honor students for whom high school has had a demonstrably more powerful influence. For example, we can’t celebrate the student who entered ninth grade with significant academic gaps but who—because of attentive teachers and interventionists, as well as their own hard work—is graduating as a solid scholar with a postsecondary plan. We can’t celebrate the student who began high school with no enduring passions but, thanks to several teacher role models, expects to major in art history when she enters college. We can’t acknowledge the contributions of our career and technical education offerings to those seeking careers as medical technicians, shipbuilders, and electrical contractors. We lose an opportunity to tell more stories.
  • Anti-educational pursuits. As Kyle Michel—the 2017 valedictorian at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs, CO—said in his valedictorian address, “I am able to speak to you today solely as a result of my GPA, a fact I bring up not out of pride but out of concern. The number that put me on the stage today has played a sizable role in suppressing passion for myself, for my fellow graduates, and for high school students across the country.” The direct costs of focusing on GPA and rank include an upside-down focus on points in lieu of skills, anxiety about performance in lieu of passion about new vistas, and competition with classmates in lieu of bonding and peer support.

We Can and Must Do Better

Honor parts have a long-standing tradition for most high schools, and while the tradition persists nearly everywhere, a number of intriguing alternative models have emerged that warrant our attention.

  1. Honor more students with high achievement histories. Schools can keep the bar of achievement high and still honor every student who achieves at or above that bar. The assumption that only two students must “win” is erroneous. Sharing a school’s highest honors is not diluted by the presence of five (or 10 or even 20) additional classmates.
  2. Stop weighting classes. Not all American high schools assign a weight to honors-level course grades. It is a choice, and it is not necessary. If weights are applied, a local multiplier formula is in play—perhaps ranging from 1.1 to 1.25 or higher. Yet we treat the eventual GPA metric as holy and unassailable. In such schools, the mathematical reality is that only students who enroll in honors and AP courses are likely to become valedictorians.
  3. Identify and celebrate additional measures of excellence and school pride. Celebrating honorable conduct is, ironically, not part of the definition of honor roll. “Few other personal traits have been held in higher esteem or valued longer throughout history than that of individual honor,” notes Thomas Guskey, senior research scholar at the University of Louisville, KY. Moreover, America’s school systems’ recent focus on Portrait of a Graduate profiles would argue for the inclusion of enduring accomplishments besides GPA.
  4. Address flaws in our grading practices. Virtually all experts on classroom assessment decry the idiosyncratic grading practices that persist in public school classrooms. It is common practice for school counselors to calculate students’ GPAs out to the third decimal point in order to split ties. Schools owe it to their students and teachers to adopt district-wide and school-based guidelines for grading and reporting.
  5. Rewrite or renegotiate the metrics of community scholarship awards. Community partners want to give their scholarship monies to deserving students. Don’t let their outdated understanding of honorable achievement limit your options. Reach out to them and explore rewriting the award criteria.
  6. Discontinue or redefine the practice of ranking students. Some schools report rank in class by deciles (tenths of the cohort) or by quartile. This slight modification may discourage the distracting fixation on rank order, yet will still supply colleges with the comparative analysis they may seek. Schools may also calculate rank in class without publishing it. Schools that have chosen this route have an easier time refocusing students on taking classes for the right reasons—their interests, needs, and aspirations.
  7. End the tradition completely where it no longer makes sense. Find other ways to celebrate academic achievement. Specifically, on the transcripts of juniors and seniors, add the average grade earned by the class as a whole alongside the student’s earned grade. This provides a rough index of course difficulty, thus providing some index of student-selected rigor.

Picture all of the nonvaledictorians in the school gym on the much-awaited commencement day. They are the majority of the student body, and their stories are all unique and special. We can do better; we must do better.


Craig Kesselheim recently retired from a career in education that included classroom teaching, school principalship, district administration, and 15 years of school redesign coaching with Great Schools Partnership.