Student Well-Being

How Many Valedictorians Is Too Many?

By Maggie DeBlasis — June 12, 2015 3 min read
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An Ohio school district celebrated its high school graduation season this year with 222 valedictorians.

That’s right. Two hundred and twenty-two valedictorians.

Roughly 20 percent of the Dublin, Ohio’s three high schools’ seniors graduated with the title of valedictorian, according to The Columbus Dispatch. By comparison, schools in the nearby Columbus district had a total of 61 valedictorians in its 20 high schools. And that was the second largest number in the state. (My high school graduation didn’t feature a single valedictorian, so anything more than one, to me, is a lot.)

Up until 2008, Dublin only awarded the prestigious title to one student, but then it changed the rules so more students could be eligible for scholarships linked to the designation. Under the new rules, any student with a GPA above 4.1 (which can be done in part by taking heavy-credit AP and IB courses) qualifies to be dubbed valedictorian.

The sheer number of valedictorians this year, the highest it’s been so far—though it’s on a steady rise from the 201 in 2013—has caused a mild uproar from the local citizenry, among others. In a letter to the editor to the Dispatch, a reader named Jason Homorody said that this sort of ‘coddling’ is the problem with the American education system.

“Somewhere in Dublin, three students who actually deserve the title are sharing that award with 219 students who do not merit the distinction,” he writes.

In a response to Homorody’s letter, however, a Dublin resident countered that the district did the right thing by not leaving out any of its top students.

“Isn’t a 4.0-point average the highest academic rank in Ohio’s public school standards,” the letter asked. “If 222 students achieve a 4.0-point average, the highest possible in the Ohio public-school system, but only one by Homorody’s definition “deserves” the honor, how shall the school system choose just one?”

In a post on the controversy for the Washington Post, Dalton Miller, one of 72 valedictorians to graduate from Dublin Jerome High School in 2014, also defended the practice. Miller, who will be a sophomore at Ohio State University in the fall, writes that, at first glance, gaining the title valedictorian along with numerous classmates might be being seen as less of an honor than in the past. But in fact, he continues, circumstances—and students’ achievement levels—have changed, make it far more than a hollow, “everyone-gets-a-trophy” honor.

This view overlooks the fact that today’s students actually are more academically accomplished than previous generations. The number of graduates who took AP courses in high school has nearly doubled in the past decade. The average GPA for graduating high schoolers rose by more than 0.3 points between 1990 and 2009. And the number of students earning a perfect ACT score increased by 120 percent over the past five years ... Academic excellence can be achieved by more than one student in a class, and the numbers show that today’s multiple valedictorians are achieving more than the single valedictorians of yesterday.

Now, as for the most important question of this matter: Did all the valedictorians give customary inspiring speeches? Apparently not: According to the Dispatch, ceremonies “might still be going on if Dublin schools had asked all of its valedictorians to speak.” Miller says that, at his school, all the qualifying valedictorians went through a speaker-selection process, through which administrators chose one male and one female student to inspire his peers as they headed off into the ‘real world.’ The chance to speak at graduation, he says, provided additional incentive for top students to push themselves even more.

Image: Mark Ramsay/Flickr Creative Commons

For more information on high school graduations, see also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.