Based on the hard feelings and oversights they appear to be causing
as more and more students meet and exceed grade-point standards that
once appeared nearly unreachable, area high schools might be
well-served to scrap the traditional valedictorian/salutatorian
system for recognizing students and opt for something a bit more
In the past few years, the tales have grown of students who have
achieved 4.0 grade-point averages -- and even higher -- while
participating in a variety of school activities, yet have missed out
on a chance at valedictorian or salutatorian because other students
focused solely on earning A’s in more heavily weighted AP classes,
along with all their others. The traditional system -- not in place
at all schools, but at many -- gives the graduating student with the
best GPA the title of valedictorian, and the next-best student
salutatorian. Traditionally, those students also speak at
In more than a few instances, this has resulted in students whose
sole focus has been academics -- no sports, no clubs, no volunteer
work, no other school-related activities -- being honored at
graduation, while others who achieved the once-lofty 4.0 pinnacle
were left in the shadow of someone, or several someones, whose AP
grades pushed their GPAs to 4.1 and even higher.
Certainly, no one wants to discourage students from getting the
best grades they can. Good grades in such high-level classes are a
testament to a student’s academic work ethic and commitment.
But there is also a lot to be said for emerging from high school
as a well-rounded human being, and it’s the students who have sampled
a little bit of everything high school has to offer, and have
maintained good-but-not-perfect grades, who often get the short end
of the stick come graduation.
What’s more, automatically handing commencement-speaker honors to
the two or three students with the best grades doesn’t mean
graduates, parents, faculty and staff are getting the best possible
speeches or speakers. One could legitimately argue that a student who
didn’t have perfect grades but made an effort to participate in a
variety of school and outside activities has a much more realistic
world perspective to offer graduates than someone who’s spent their
entire high-school career only studying and going to class.
A significant change is needed to recognize both outstanding
academic achievers and those with a combination of academics and
other activities that makes them special. One idea: Recognize at
graduation all students who achieve a 4.0 or better, and present some
kind of award to the student with the highest GPA, but lose the
valedictorian and salutatorian titles and make the speaking honors a
competition open to any graduate. A committee of students and
teachers, or separate committees, could hold auditions a month before
school ends and decide who has the best speech. For all they know, it
could be a senior who’s spent most of high school earning B’s and
C’s, but is on the baseball team, has a part-time job and has been in
a play or two.
Not surprisingly, in today’s cutthroat world, many high-school
students who focus solely on academics consider earning the
valedictorian or salutatorian prize as “winning” high school.
Ironically, for students with grades that good, those titles probably
couldn’t matter less, as far as their futures are concerned. They
were accepted into the college of their choice long before
commencement titles were decided, and getting that final honor has no
bearing on ... well, on anything, really. Yet the sting from not
being recognized as an excellent student will stay with those who
came close, but not close enough, because they did other things.
It’s possible to recognize all types of individuals at graduation,
not just the ones with the biggest numbers after their names. If they
haven’t done so already, our area high schools should change the
valedictorian/salutatorian system to something a bit more inclusive
-- and get the best graduation speakers out of the deal, as well.