Opinions differ on whether high schools should stop appointing valedictorians

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Shortly after the Cherry Creek School District in Arapahoe County announced it would stop appointing valedictorians to its high schools, criticism began pouring in.

“The pursuit of excellence has suffered another blow,” George Brauchler, a former Arapahoe County prosecutor, wrote in a Denver Post column.

“The crusade against meritocracy and for mediocrity in our schools has reached a new level,” wrote the editorial board of the Denver Gazette newspaper.

Cherry Creek’s decision was even featured in the national and international newspaper Newsweek, with other outlets also mentioning it.

The practice of honoring valedictorians has been a top discussion among high school principals in the district “for many years,” the principals wrote in a letter to parents.

“Class grading and valedictorian practices are outdated and inconsistent with what we know and believe about our students. We believe that all students can learn at high levels and that learning is not a competition,” the principals wrote in the policy letter, which will begin with the Class of 2026.

Cherry Creek’s new policy was aimed at “unnecessary pressure,” the letter says, a welcome change in the eyes of Dr. Anna Mueller, an associate professor of sociology who has studied youth mental health in different parts of the country, including Colorado. . .

“Painful and stressful academic pressure for teens can be very real,” Mueller told Colorado Community Media.

“A healthier school culture”

The decision to scrap valedictorian status is not unheard of: One Colorado community that made the move years ago was the Boulder Valley School District.

Boulder Valley’s top official Rob Anderson did not oversee the decision – he started as superintendent there in 2018 – but “since I’ve been here nobody has asked me to bring him back”, said Anderson.

Anderson also served as assistant superintendent of academics in the Atlanta-area Fulton County, Georgia, where high-performing Northview High School decided to stop appointing valedictorians and salutatorians “due to added pressures.” it exerts on children,” Anderson said.

“Just for the record, talking with the parents, talking with (the) principal, it created a healthier school culture for the kids who were at the top of the class,” Anderson said, speaking about the Northview High decision. .

In Anderson’s opinion, differences in grade point average, or GPA, at the top of a class can be insignificant.

The gap can sometimes be a tenth or a hundredth of a point “when you separate highly motivated, incredibly intelligent kids who are trying to achieve these kinds of goals,” Anderson said. “There’s not a lot of room in between.”

“Talk to (students vying for) valedictorian or salutatorian. They don’t sleep,” said Anderson, who believes kids can be successful without titles.

Superintendent Chris Fiedler, head of School District 27J in the Brighton area, has not served in any school district where valedictorians are not recognized. It was uncertain whether removing the valedictorian designation from high schools would largely affect student achievement.

“Do I think it boosts school performance? That’s absolutely the case for the (high-ranking) kids chasing,” Fiedler said. “I think it stimulates competition between children. I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as it’s healthy.

Fiedler previously served as principal of the Gilpin County School District in Black Hawk and then principal of Deer Trail School District 26J in Deer Trail, according to the District 27J website. He is co-chair of the Denver Area School Superintendents Council.

“I don’t always believe that the letter grade that students get in a class is always an accurate representation of what they have or haven’t learned,” Fiedler said. “Some of the classes I learned the most in, I didn’t get an A.”

Michael Mazenko, a teacher at Cherry Creek High School, former school administrator, and former gifted education coordinator, argued in a Denver Post op-ed that “Grading may encourage children to avoid difficult classes for fear of lose a decimal point. ”

Competition for valedictorian status and rank creates a “game” and prevents students from choosing courses based on growth and interest “to instead choose what is best to manipulate GPA” , wrote Mazenko.

On the other hand, the pursuit of a high GPA can also cause students to load their schedules with many advanced placement and specialization courses. Fiedler said both scenarios are realistic.

“Kids who were vying to be valedictorian, salutatorian, they would walk away from unweighted classes because it would hurt their GPA. If the school has a band or a yearbook, valuable classes…kids wouldn’t take those classes,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the pressure to achieve a certain class rank encourages high-achieving students to “overload.”

These kids are “not only filling their school year, but filling their summers, taking classes beyond the school year, beyond the normal course load a student would take,” Anderson said.

When asked if the decision whether or not to recognize a valedictorian affected mid- or low-achieving students, Fiedler replied, “My opinion is no.”

“I believe there are probably 20 to 25 kids, maybe 30, maybe 35, who come into high school in first grade with that in mind. And after the first year, it sorts itself out quickly,” and some kids stop pursuing that rank, Fiedler said.

In general, Fiedler felt that “competition is good and healthy” and that focusing on rankings is valid practice.

“I would say in most if not all of life we ​​keep score. If we no longer honor valedictorian majors…are we no longer going to have state wrestling champions? Fiedler said, for example.

“Life is full of competition,” he added.

“Minimizing Achievements”

The Cherry Creek School District declined to make an official available for an interview with Colorado Community Media about the valedictorian policy, but district spokesperson Father Smith pointed out that Cherry Creek High School did not have a valedictorian process even before the district announcement, which came in principals. letter of March 9.

“Cherry Creek High School, the district’s flagship and arguably one of the best high schools in the country, eliminated valedictorian and student ranking more than 30 years ago,” wrote Mazenko, the former administrator. of the school, in the Post.

“Grading may actually undermine and downplay the achievements of the school’s high number of extraordinary students,” he continued.

The Cherry Creek District will continue to recognize students’ academic achievements through other methods, such as the honor roll, GPA lanyards at graduation, and department- and school-specific awards, according to the letter. directors.

“Cultural Change”

Mueller, an associate professor of sociology, said academic pressure can push some young people into a worrying situation.

“Some of my past research has really shown that academic pressure can play a role in making children feel like life isn’t worth living – like life is unbearable and suicide is their only escape. “said Mueller, who works for Indiana University.

His study, titled “Adolescents Under Pressure,” highlighted the importance of addressing the social causes — for example, academic pressure — of young people’s psychological pain, according to an abstract on his website.

The pressure of “narrow beliefs” about what makes “good kids and good families” can limit how children imagine the path to adulthood, Mueller said.

“It makes chess all the more intense because it seems like absolutely everything is on the line,” Mueller said. “If you fail a test or fail a class or get a C in that class…it’s this much bigger, existential thing of ‘I won’t be able to achieve X, Y, Z long-term goals. ‘”

She added, “If we’re going to encourage people to push their academic limits, or their athletic limits, or their nerd limits, we have to make it okay to fail.”

While Mueller doesn’t think ending the valedictorian designation will change everything about that kind of pressure, she does think it’s “the kind of politics that’s a step in the right direction.”

It could act as “a symbol for the larger community of ‘let’s do this cultural shift,'” Mueller said. But, she added, such a change should also be supported by other school policies, by parents and children themselves, and by teachers.

One source of pressure that exists outside the scope of high school policy: the cost of college education.

Part of what puts pressure on students is finding merit scholarships, which are more competitive than just getting into college, Mueller said. She argues that students don’t need to attend a “highly selective university” to receive a good education.

“I would actually say that if we could take some of the pressure off parents to pay for college and students to pay for college, I think that (would) benefit the mental health of our country,” he said. Mueller said. “Probably parents and students.”

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