By Thomas R. Guskey
Top high school students throughout Kentucky will soon engage in what could be the most serious competition of their lives. No, it's not an athletic competition. This involves the selection of the graduating class valedictorian.
In most high schools, the valedictorian is the student who earns the highest, weighted grade point average or GPA. "Weighted" means that students get more credit for taking honors or advanced classes. Unfortunately, this process pits students against each other in fierce competition to gain that singular distinction.
To become the valedictorian you must not only do well, you must outdo your classmates. Bitter rivalries result in which students game the system to gain advantage over others. They avoid classes in music or the arts because even an A in an unweighted class can bring down their GPA. Sometimes the difference in GPA among these top-achieving students is as little as one hundred thousandth of a decimal point. The process ruins friendships, discourages collaboration, and diminishes student morale.
Outstanding academic achievement should certainly be recognized. But what about other qualities such as commitment to service, compassion, integrity and a sense of social justice? Where do curiosity, initiative and creativity come in? Do we want students to be reluctant to explore new areas for fear that they might not be as successful as hoped? Or do we want them to be inquisitive risk-takers who explore new areas and persist in the face of occasional failure?
Interestingly, the term "valedictorian" has nothing to do with achievement. It comes from the Latin, vale dicere, which means "to say farewell." It's the individual selected to deliver a farewell address at the commencement ceremony.
Colleges and universities select valedictorians through very different procedures. Most use the criterion-based Latin system to designate graduates cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude, meaning "with honor," "with great honor" and "with highest honor." Depending on the institution, the valedictorian might be selected by a vote among high- achieving graduates, elected by the entire graduating class or appointed by the faculty based on a system of merit that considers not only grades but also involvement in service projects and participation in extracurricular activities.
Only high schools maintain the practice of selecting the valedictorian based solely on students' cumulative GPA.
Recognizing excellence in academic performance is a vital aspect of any learning community. But such recognition need not be based on deleterious competition. Instead, it should be based on rigorous academic standards that encourage large numbers of students to learn excellently and gain the recognition that such outstanding achievement deserves.
Thomas R. Guskey is a professor in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology at the University of Kentucky.