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Expert: Modify the Formula for Determining Valedictorian

Can One Yardstick Measure All Students ? Think Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs

Tom Puckett
June 19, 2017 - 4:00 am
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Buffalo, NY (WBEN/AP) As some school districts are considering doing away with high school valedictorians, one education specialist says don't do away with them, modify the forumla to determine the high honor.

"If you're highly motivated and a high traditional learner and high compliant, you are the student who is the best in the system set up for school," says Natalie Belien of the Indigo Project, which works with individualizing education programs. "If you're a high utiliatrian and a high dominance low compliance person, you're a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs. I can guarantee neither was at the top of the rankings at their school, but they became innovators that blasted systems apart."

But she says the title shouldn't be eliminated. "I think they need to look at other behaviors and motivators and make it a fair playing field," suggests Belien. She cites those who start a successful business or conduct a service project should also get some credit toward becoming valedictorian. "We need to merge school achievement and other accomplishments together, School is important, and the profound effects if we tweak this can be magnificent," believes Belien. 

Belien says the title of valedictorian has significance. "That's one way we quantify who we divvy up scholarships to. What I'm saying is there are more numbers to give affection to and that's not happening," says Belien. She notes colleges do ask for class ranking in applications, but have never asked if you were valedictorian. 

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Among those weighing a change is Lancaster High School  where students are leading an exploration of replacing valedictorian-salutatorian recognitions with the college-style Latin honors of summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude.

The principal, Cesar Marchioli, said he's neutral on the issue, though he feels for the 11th-ranked student who falls just short of the recognition awarded to the top 10 seniors honored at the annual banquet.

Graduating Lancaster senior Connor Carrow, 17, has pressed for the switch to Latin honors since his sophomore year, well before landing just out of the top 10, at No. 14, while serving as student union president and playing varsity lacrosse and hockey. He said it's a better fit with the school's collaborative and cooperative ideals.

"You're striving for that (honor) personally, but you're not hoping that you're better than these other 400 people next to you," said Carrow.

The view was somewhat different from the No. 1 spot occupied by Carrow's classmate Daniel Buscaglia, who also played saxophone in several performance ensembles and volunteered in his town's youth bureau. While he doesn't oppose the change, Buscaglia expects the competition in high school, although it was mostly friendly, will help him at Cornell University in the fall.

Elsewhere, commenters have peppered news websites with disparaging comparisons to giving "participation trophies" to avoid hurt feelings, while supporters point out the often statistically insignificant differences that separate students.

Rankings still play an important part in aspects of the college admissions process. There are scholarships for the top-ranked students, and the number of top students at colleges is factored into college rankings.

The ranking of students from No. 1 on down, based on grade-point averages, has been fading steadily for about the past decade. In its place are honors that recognize everyone who scores at a certain threshold — using Latin honors, for example. This year, one school in Tennessee had 48 valedictorians.

About half of schools no longer report class rank, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Administrators worry about the college prospects of students separated by large differences in class rank despite small differences in their GPAs, and view rankings as obsolete in an era of high expectations for every student, association spokesman Bob Farrace said. There are also concerns about intense, potentially unhealthy competition and students letting worries about rank drive their course selections.

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