When Webster County's 2019 Valedictorian(s) gives their commencement speech(s) at Friday's WCHS graduation, they will be making history. The class of 2019 will be the final class from the school to honor the students with the highest grade point average (GPA) with the title of valedictorian and salutatorian.
Webster County, and other schools around the country, are doing away with the traditional system that honors the top performers in the class, replacing it with one that will recognize all of the honor students in the student body.
"The current model focuses on a very few by naming only a few valedictorians and salutatorians," said outgoing principal Aaron Harrell. "Because we have begun to personalize our approach to learning at WCHS, it is important to recognize the many paths to excellence. We believe this will do just that."
Instead of presenting individual top honors, the new model will recognize Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude and Cum Laude graduates.
The valedictorian, the english version of the Latin phrase vale dicere ("to say farewell"), is a long standing tradition in the educational world used to honor the graduating student with the highest possible GPA. That individual is tasked with giving a speech at graduation, recalling fond memories of the students time together and offering motivational words for the future.
Traditionally the title of Salutatorian goes to the student with the second highest GPA.
During the last decade, schools nationwide have begun to look at this new model, first going from one or two valedictorian to a dozen or more, and now to doing away with the position all together.
Once an integral part of the college admissions and financial aid process, class rankings have taken a backseat to other issues.
"Rank can be deceptive," said Matthew Ruark, Director of Admissions for Kentucky Wesleyan College. "It often highlights a student who has worked extremely hard at succeeding academically, but has not put what they've learned into practice in the form of an organization or part-time job. Conversely, it can harm a wonderfully talented student who has been involved in different pursuits or a student who needed to have a job to help support their family."
Kentucky Wesleyan is not alone.
"It is not the ranking that is important," said Heather Roy, Murray State University Madisonville/Henderson Campus Director. "Most colleges in Kentucky have a rubric that is used in determining scholarship money."
That scoring rubric considers all of the factors, not just class rank. Is the student involved in clubs? Do they play a sport? Do they volunteer? Do they have a job?
The decline in the importance of class ranking seems to have a lot to do with new and better opportunities being made available to students.
As AP (Advanced Placement) classes have become more readily available across the country, they've skewed the traditional class ranking system. AP courses are weighted heavier than regular classes, meaning a student can achieve a GPA higher than 4.0.
This has led to high school students taking heavy AP course loads, often in subjects that won't factor into the degree they intend to pursue in college. One example was a student who intended on going into accounting that had taken an AP Physics course.
"I think what Webster County is doing is wonderful," said Roy. "As the parent of a senior, I think instead of pitting students against each other, it will allow them to reach their own personal goals."
Harrell also pointed out that the traditional model did not work well with the new Early College Academy, where a number of 2019 graduates will receive an Associates Degree along with their high school diploma.
"That basically takes some very good students out of contention for top honors," he said.
He said instead of taking AP courses, those students have been taking more college courses, which do not get the same weighted score in the class ranking model, effectively eliminating those students from the valedictorian race.
Harrell said he did not see the change as a way of giving "participation trophies" to the high school's honor students, but a way of recognizing all of the honor students, regardless of which path they took.
He said that at the moment, he is still unsure what the 2020 honors program will look like when it comes to graduation ceremonies. Harrell, who is leaving his post as WCHS principal at the end of the school year, said that is a discussion that he thinks the incoming seniors need to be involved in.
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