Schools Rein in Valedictorian Race
Hypercompetition has led some to scrap title or give it to all with a 4.0.
June 5, 2011
There was a time when selecting a high school valedictorian was a straightforward affair: He or she with the top GPA in the class was appropriately crowned, and tasked with delivering the Big Speech.
But these are hypercompetitive times, and while many high schools in the South Bay and beyond still abide by the old tradition, more and more are taking another approach.
At El Segundo High, for instance, administrators this year officially scrapped the valedictorian title, although a student will still give a valedictory address. Other schools – such as Palos Verdes Peninsula High, Palos Verdes High and Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach – confer the title on anyone with a 4.0 or better. At these schools – which have actually stuck by this policy for years – there will be 30, 32 and 11 valedictorians , respectively. That’s 73 valedictorians for three schools.
The race to the top of the class sometimes breeds a bottom-line approach to learning, with students emphasizing GPA over educational enrichment. The cutthroat competition can damage friendships, provoke back-biting and even lead to lawsuits.
Jim Garza, the longtime principal at El Segundo High, said it got to the point at his school where the valedictorian selection process was doing more harm than good. Students were edging each other out by one-one-thousandth of a point, and being strategic about which classes they took, often forgoing electives for classes that maximized GPA.
“Last year, there were students who stopped speaking to each other,” he said. “It hurt some feelings and created some disharmony. That’s not what this is supposed to be.”
Occasionally, it gets even more serious. Last year, the No. 2 student at a high school in Rio Grande City, Texas, sued the school district over the way in which the GPAs were calculated. (She later withdrew the lawsuit.) Several years ago in New Jersey, a valedictorian sued after the high school tried to take away her sole honors amid complaints that she’d benefited from accommodations as a special education student. She won.
The competition for the title isn’t just about bragging rights – real resources are at stake. At UCLA, although earning the valedictorian title is not an official criterion in the admissions process, “evidence of achievement” is. And what is the valedictorian title if not evidence of achievement?
“I would say that it looks good,” said Rosa Pimentel, associate director of admissions at UCLA. But she added that the school takes a holistic approach to admissions, and being valedictorian is just one of many signs that a student is driven and successful. “We do turn down valedictorians , because there are so many.”
El Segundo High isn’t the only South Bay school to change its valedictorian policy in recent years.
Bishop Montgomery, a Catholic high school in Torrance, broke with tradition four years ago, bestowing the top title to all students who earn a weighted GPA of 4.5 or higher. (A weighted GPA is one that can go above a 4.0 because of exemplary performance in advanced courses.) This year, the school has 11 valedictorians .
Doug Mitchell, Bishop’s head guidance counselor, said the old way created an environment in which many high-achievers were afraid to experiment with courses that weren’t part of the advanced curriculum, for fear of tarnishing their flawless GPAs. For example, getting an A in art – which has no advanced placement component – could actually have the effect of dragging down a weighted GPA, perhaps from a 4.8 to a 4.7, he said.
“A’s weren’t good enough for some of these kids, and we don’t want that,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want kids to damage their educational experience just to compete for a prize.”
This year, Narbonne High in Harbor City eliminated the single- valedictorian tradition in favor of naming five valedictorians – one for each of Narbonne’s schools-within-a-school, also known as small learning communities. Before, the award invariably went to the top student in one of those communities: the math-science magnet. Top students in other communities – such as performing arts, health care studies and business – weren’t as celebrated.
“We thought this would give us a chance to diversify the type of student who gets the recognition,” said Bo Mee Kim, Narbonne’s college counselor.
At El Segundo High, all students who achieved a GPA of 4.0 or above could audition to give the speech. But officially, there is no valedictorian .
(In another sign of the times, the number of students with a 4.0 or better at El Segundo High has doubled in eight years, to around 40 – or 13 percent of the class, Garza said.)
Of the seven students who tried out, the winner – Cara de Freitas Bart – has many of the hallmarks of a valedictorian . She’s well spoken and driven, with an academic GPA of 4.7. (Officially, it’s 4.6897, she said.) Next year, Cara will attend Princeton, where she plans to major in math.
She learned she won the audition via email, while staying in the dorms at Stanford University, where she was visiting. She screamed for joy.
“Then the whole hall comes in and says, ‘Congratulations,”‘ she said. “It led into a discussion about how, at Stanford, half the students are valedictorians and the other half are salutatorians.”
At the age of 12, Cara ran her first marathon. Since then, she’s run 10 more, plus 11 half-marathons. As a freshman, Cara, like all students at El Segundo High, wrote herself a letter that she finally received a couple weeks ago. In hers, the younger Cara predicted that her older self, by the time she read the letter, would be valedictorian , and preparing to head to an Ivy League school.
Cara said she generally agrees with the new rules, noting how she herself got dinged for taking extracurricular activities like marching band. But she said there is at least one drawback: In prior years, the school’s marquee listed the names of the top 10 students. Now it bears only her name.
“I would like my fellow classmates who have worked similarly hard to be recognized,” she said.
Other local schools have hewed to the tradition of awarding the title to the top-ranked student. Among them is North High School in Torrance.
This year’s winner, Sarah Baik, said striving to maintain that top spot was a good motivator to keep up the intensity. But she said it has its down sides.
“It was kind of uncomfortable for me,” said Sarah, a chipper student who excels in science but also likes to write short stories. “After a while I just became a number. … It’s like I’m not a person anymore, just a robot.”
But even at North, the valedictory address is not necessarily delivered by the valedictorian . Instead, students audition for the honor. Sarah, who plans to study biochemistry at USC, gave it a shot, but lost out to the same student she edged out for the valedictorian title.
“It’s hard standing up and seeing all those people – I keep stuttering over my words,” said Sarah, who finished her high school career with a 4.72 GPA.
“My rival, he got it. Ahh!” she said, with a laugh.
rob. kuznia @dailybreeze.com