In Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, there are three high schools — and this year those schools produced a total of 222 valedictorians. That’s fully 20 percent of the graduates from Dublin high schools this year. One of the three high schools, Dublin Coffman, had 96 students who achieved “valedictorian” status.
There were about 800 students in my 1975 Upper Arlington High School graduating class, and there were less than 20 valedictorians. They all achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average — the higest possible GPA — during high school. I knew many of them, and one was my best friend, The Entrepreneur. He was a smart and motivated guy who worked hard to keep that four-point average because he knew that one misstep would knock him out of the running, and he really wanted to attain valedictorian status. His friends, me included, were proud of him.
Those days are long gone in many schools, where educators consciously are trying to avoid competition for the “number one student” position. And a 4.0 average is no longer the highest GPA you can get, either. These days, many schools give additional GPA credit for “advanced” classes, to encourage students to take a more challenging curriculum. At the Dublin schools, for example, you get “valedictorian” status if you achieve at least a 4.1 GPA. The Dublin schools call students in that category “valedictorians” to allow them to qualify for college scholarships that are linked to valedictorian status.
(Apparently the Dublin schools don’t ask every one of their hundreds of valedictorians to make a speech at graduation — which means that the students really shouldn’t be called “valedictorians.” A valedictory, after all, is a farewell address. But, I digress.)
What does it mean when 20 percent of high school graduates obtain valedictorian status? Call me old school — pun intended — but obviously being a valedictorian doesn’t mean what it once did. You can’t help but wonder whether grade inflation has played a role and the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality hasn’t crept in to the academic honors process.
And, at a deeper level, it also reflects the diminished role of high schools. For decades, high school was the end of the educational line for the vast majority of students. Now high schools view themselves as just another step in the educational process, and their grading and honors policies are consciously designed to help their graduates get into the best colleges — where, perhaps, the real competition will begin.
Are we helping American students by designing high school to minimize real academic competition? Because, at some point — whether in college, or in graduate school, or in the real world — true intellectual competition will in fact occur, and stress inevitably will come with it. Maybe giving students a dose of competition and stress in high school would better prepare them for that oncoming reality.