Wood River High School may be saying goodbye to the valedictorian.
That possibility was pitched to a split school board during its regular April meeting last Tuesday by a trio of administrators who cited “unhealthy competition” for the title.
“The current way is broken, and needs to change,” said school College and Career Counselor Millie Reidy. “It’s not about who’s our best student, it’s about who’s best at gaming the system. It’s unhealthy—I don’t know why we’d keep promoting a tradition that’s against what we stand for.
“Some very, very unethical things have been going on.”
Examples include surreptitiously taking Advanced Placement courses online to boost grade point averages, refusing collaboration and attempting to steal assessment materials, Reidy said.
The quest for the top GPA also leads students to shun elective and dual-credit courses, which will bring down their averages, Principal John Pearce said.
Those courses are scored on a four-point scale, whereas Advanced Placement, or A.P., classes are out of five. That means that for a student with a GPA over four—as of last week, there were 23 in the class of 2019—even perfect performance in an elective class will bring their average down.
With the race for valedictorian typically coming down to hundredths of a point, kids vying for the top spot simply don’t take those classes, Pearce said.
“The courses that students take should not be picked for some goal other than education,” he said. “I subscribe to the idea that it’s not he who learns first is best—it’s he who learns is best. These kids aren’t against each other in any way, shape or form. They’re against the [state] standards.”
His idea: replace the singular title with a tiered system mirroring the Latin honors common with colleges. “Summa cum laude” would be awarded to students above a 4.0, “magna cum laude” to those between a 3.8 and a 3.99, and “with honors” to those between 3.5 to 3.79. The speaker could be selected at random from the top pool.
“I don’t want to view this as something we’d be taking away,” Pearce said. “To me, it’d be an addition.”
Not everyone viewed that as a good thing.
“When you say it broadens the pool, I say it dilutes the pool,” Trustee Ryan Degn said. “When you say it fosters unhealthy competition, I don’t agree that competition is unhealthy. I was fuming when I read this last night. Two words kept popping into my head—‘participation trophies.’ The tradition I could care less about—I could break tradition in a heartbeat. But I think breaking this one takes away from the work of someone trying to be the best.”
Not every trustee was so sharp in critique—rather, a few were persuaded by Pearce’s argument. But before moving forward they’d like to add more voices to the discussion. There’s still time to do that. Pearce suggested holding off on the change until the class of 2021—current sophomores—reach graduation.
“I haven’t heard any feedback from my patrons on this proposal,” Trustee Kevin Garrison said. “Conceptually, I really like the idea. I would love to hear more stakeholder comments on this issue.”