Race for valedictorian comes to halt in school districts nationwide

Chasing Number One

Ashton Nichols | Staff Writer

Valedictorians be gone.

Starting in 2018, the Wake County School Board of North Carolina will stop naming Valedictorians and Salutatorians. The 25 high schools, varying in class size from 100 to 600, will switch to the Magna Cum Laude and the Summa Cum Laude honors. To receive cum laude, students would need a 3.75 to 4.0 GPA, for magna cum laude a 4.0 to 4.249 GPA, and for summa cum laude a 4.25 GPA or higher.

Other schools across the nation have forgone naming Valedictorians, such as a cluster of schools in Arizona – Deer Valley Unified School District, Glendale Union High School District, Mesa Public Schools and more –  along with the Parkland School District in Pennsylvania.

Wake County School Board member and policy chair Jim Martin said the reasoning behind the decision to stop naming Valedictorians was because of many reasons, including students cheating the system, varying class sizes, and students not fulfilling the true purpose of learning.

“We see from many places that there are a lot of people who play the system,” Martin said. “It’s not based just on your GPA; it’s based on your weighted GPA. People try to gain the system by taking the greatest amount of AP classes they can to get the highest weighting. What an educator cares about is learning, not gaining.”

Martin has been a chemistry professor at North Carolina State University for 23 years, and he urges his students to take a wide range of classes that will prepare them for the future, not just classes to stack up a GPA.

“From an educational standpoint, I want you to take AP classes, but if you can (take) a home economics class, a cooking class, a shop class, you’re going to learn about design and how to use tools,” Martin said. “Which frankly I’m going to need (these skills) if you’re going to work in my lab. That’s part of it being a well-rounded, educated person.”

Martin said his ultimate goal in the decision to stop naming Valedictorians was to help create a better education for the Wake County school district.

“What we’ve got is a system that rewards certain classes with higher weighted GPAs, and so you get people taking four, five, six AP classes in a year mainly to weight and not because they’re really trying to learn the material,” Martin said. “It becomes a game to pass the test, and a game to weight your GPA. By taking away the weighted GPA gaining incentive, the goal is hopefully more people will take a breath of courses, which will actually end up in stronger and better education.”

Mason Class of 2015 co-Valedictorian Allison Yan is a sophomore at Harvard University studying Human Evolutionary Biology. Yan said that when she was in high school, pressure from her peers to take rigorous classes was evident.

“My friend group really cared about (being at the top), and that’s why I cared,” Yan said. “But in retrospect, I honestly feel like you should take classes that you want to spend time in, and do well in those, rather than trying to stack your GPA in the best way.”

Class of 2016 Valedictorian Alvin Zhang is currently attending The Ohio State University studying mathematics and computer science. Zhang said in his speech at graduation that he wishes he had taken more time to enjoy high school, and less to stress about academics.

“If I had the opportunity to go through high school again – I wouldn’t take it,” Zhang said. “But if I were absolutely forced to do it over, I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to become valedictorian. I regret spending the countless hours locked up in my room doing homework, enduring tireless nights of reading an entire chapter from APUSH and possibly, this speech. I truly wish I could replace all that time with meeting more people and making new friends, doing more community service, discovering passions, and basically doing anything that would make me happier than studying just for a better grade.”

Yan said that the competitive minds of Mason students prepared her for Harvard, and she believes success in a large school is crucial despite the rigourous culture.

“The culture at Mason is ‘Do what your friends are doing’,” Yan said. “The herd mentality and the collective culture of ‘We have to suffer together’ is what is most dangerous to Mason right now. If the culture were still the same, I would have done it again, but if they took away this ranking system, I would have taken electives and enjoyed my life a little more.”

Assistant Principal Shanna Bumiller said Mason names a valedictorian because of the tradition it holds. She said the administration recognizes the pressure placed on students to do well and succeed.

“It certainly creates a lot of pressure, and at Mason High School, we want kids to be about learning,” Bumiller said. “We don’t want to kids to be about a grade. We want you to pursue learning opportunities not because it is weighted or unweighted.”

Bumiller said being a Valedictorian or Salutatorian is a way to recognize and honor students who have done tremendous work academically, and regarding future conversations, the administration would like to listen to everyone.

“We see it first hand,” Bumiller said. “We see what you’re going through. We want to help you achieve all what you want to achieve in high school. It is a large decision, and it’s out there. We’re making small strides.”