As the season of high school graduations begins, many parents will notice a missing element in the ceremonies: the naming of a valedictorian.
More schools in Orange County and across the nation are shifting from the practice of honoring the one student with the highest grades and are embracing myriad new ways to recognize student achievement.
While most Orange County schools still look to the students with the highest grade-point average for their class valedictorian and salutatorian, many have developed alternatives that range from honoring all students who graduate with a 4.0 or higher to elaborate contests in which seniors compete for top honors.
For years, educators have noticed a skewing in the grade-point-average system, caused by the practice in most schools of giving an extra point for honors and advanced placement classes. In other words, an A grade in such a class means a 5.0 instead of a 4.0.
Under that system, if two straight-A students took the same number of honors and advanced placement classes, their averages would be the same. But if one student took an additional elective--such as a team sport or a music class, or the first year of a new language, which is worth only four points--then that student would have a lower average. The result, educators say, is that the traditional definition of merit has been blurred.
In the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, this year's valedictorians will be the last of their kind. After months of study, the Board of Education was poised Tuesday to do away with the single-valedictorian system at the district's six high schools. Next year, the top 2% of each school's senior class will share the title.
In addition, the schools will adopt a new system to determine grade-point averages. Students in advanced placement classes will still earn five points for an A, but in an honors class, that would drop to 4.5 points.
Christine Lofgren, whose daughter is a sophomore at Newport Harbor High, helped develop the new policy. She says the practice of choosing one valedictorian puts too much focus on maximizing points, rather than learning for its own sake.
"You're picking your courses not by what you're going to learn and what you're going to do later in life," she said, "but by 'What am I going to do to maximize my chances for valedictorian?' "
Lofgren, who is also UC Irvine's undergraduate director of psychology majors, says that students vying for a single prize can easily lose sight of the bigger world. "We hear that in California they are lagging so far behind . . . the rest of the country, that to focus energy on competing with ourselves seems very inappropriate."
Traditionalists argue that the shift away from honoring a single best student detracts from the concept of merit.
"I'm from the old school where you strive to be the best, and there's only one guy or gal that achieves that," said Newport-Mesa Board of Education member James Ferryman, who opposes changing the standard for selecting valedictorians.
The new method "just kind of waters it down," Ferryman said. "It's one of those things that kind of erodes what this country is founded on, and that's competition and free enterprise and the best win out."
The challenge, educators say, is finding a way to recognize the students who perform the best without encouraging students to rejigger their schedules for the sake of boosting their averages.
"I've seen amazing contortions that kids go through to be the valedictorian," Irvine High School Principal Gail Richards said. "The kids that win sometimes end up not being your best, most well-rounded students. It's an artificial competition for points." For just that reason, Irvine High officials decided more than a decade ago against recognizing just one student. Instead, all students with a 4.0 grade-point average or higher are rewarded equally, graduating with "highest honors."
The school also honors students for work that extends beyond academics. Nearly 100 students received the school's Spur Award at a ceremony May 17. All of them had captured the attention of their teachers for individual effort and good values in the classroom.
"It came about because we saw that [awards] were so highly recognized," Irvine Assistant Principal Ben Wolf said, "and we weren't doing anything for our hard-working students that maybe were not at the top" in terms of GPA.
Valencia High School in Placentia moved 17 years ago to stop using straight GPA to select the top student. "It became a numbers game," guidance counselor Mark Stanley said.