Redefining Valedictorian

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By Dana Schallheim
Board of Education, District 5

Typically, when hearing the word “valedictorian,” you think of stellar academic achievement. This person has worked hard for years, probably taken nearly every possible AP class, and achieved the highest GPA of that year’s graduating class. Becoming valedictorian is likely the result of enormous sacrifice in every facet of high school life.

But what if 100th of a point separates the first and the fifth or 10th student? Are students forced to sacrifice their passions, such as orchestra, in favor of an additional AP class to obtain the honor? Does becoming the highest academically achieving student equate to selecting a class schedule not based on one’s interest but on the maximum potential weighted points achievable? Does student mental health suffer in the race for the top spot?

The overwhelming response from students to the above questions is a resounding yes. Students filled the Anne Arundel County Public Schools board room during the April 17 meeting. Nearly everyone testified in support of eliminating class rank, traditionally the sole determinant of valedictorian. In fact, I remember only one student testifying in support of retaining class rank. We must have heard from 20 students that night, including students from Severna Park High School, each with compelling testimony in support of eliminating class rank, thereby eliminating valedictorian and salutatorian. Most students spoke of oppressive stress and of feeling defined by their class rank. I was particularly moved by the testimony of the pending 2019 Severna Park High School valedictorian. She spoke of selecting classes based on how they would affect her weighted GPA instead of personal interests. AP classes replaced those that piqued her interest, such as creative writing, robotics, piano, aerospace engineering, architecture, social issues, and speech and debate.

Times have since changed since I was in high school in the early ‘90s. Now, scholarship pools for valedictorian and salutatorian are smaller and colleges and universities have moved toward the Latin Honors designation for both admissions and scholarship opportunities.

AACPS currently uses both systems of distinction. Students can achieve summa cum laude with a weighted GPA of 4.3 or higher, magna cum laude is awarded for a weighted GPA of 4.0 or higher but less than 4.3, and cum laude is awarded for an unweighted GPA of 3.4 or higher.

On May 15, the AACPS Board of Education proposed a new way of defining valedictorian in response to growing concerns amongst students and staff regarding student mental health. If passed, AACPS would remove class rank but continue to select a valedictorian and salutatorian via a new selection process. Students would be selected from those poised to earn summa cum laude through a voluntary application process, which aims to select high achieving, well-rounded students. Selection criteria would include evaluating students’ service, leadership and character – the same pillars of success utilized by the National Honors Society. If passed, the final application and selection process will be determined by Dr. George Arlotto, the AACPS superintendent, and be effective beginning with students entering the ninth grade in the 2021-2022 school year.

I have received feedback both in support and in opposition to removing or redefining valedictorian and salutatorian. Some have stated the proposed system corrects the mental health concerns that plagued the traditional selection process by evaluating the whole student, while others characterize the changes as too subjective and worry about bias.

I am interested to know where you stand on this issue. Please send your feedback to dschallheim@aacps.org. The Board of Education will vote on proposed changes to the grading policy on during its June 5 meeting at 10:00am. Public comment is encouraged.

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