PRO: Valedictorian tradition inspires top students, healthy competition
May 20, 2012 at 12:20 a.m.
Updated May 21, 2012 at 12:21 a.m.
They're a long-held tradition, a symbol of honor and a reminder that the years of hard work have paid off.
They're valedictorians - a distinction that is usually given to a graduate who has accumulated the highest grade point average during his or her years at school.
School districts across the state and nation come up with their own rules for ranking students, but as of late, some have abandoned the traditional meaning of "valedictorian" altogether.
Donald Kamentz, president of the Texas Association for College Admission Counseling, said as long as a decade ago, some schools in Texas began moving away from naming a single valedictorian.
Instead, districts may opt to name several valedictorians who meet a certain GPA requirement. Or, they may do away with the ranking all together.
Kamentz said he's heard less about the practice in Texas in recent years, but he's noticed the trend gaining momentum in other parts of the country like New York and California.
So, what gives? Would students benefit from getting rid of the often intense competition to be named No. 1? Or would they be robbed of the title that has so long emphasized a student's achievement?
Being valedictorian of his class wasn't necessarily his goal, but Christopher Mason will definitely take it.
Christopher is this year's top graduate from St. Joseph High School - a distinction he said came about from just trying the best he could over the past four years.
It's also a distinction Christopher said he'd like to see stick around for future generations, if only so students have a goal to aspire to.
"I'm just more traditional that way," Christopher said.
While some schools see the No. 1 title as the instigator of an intense and unproductive competition, Christopher said that wasn't the case at St. Joseph.
"It just turns out to be that our class is really bright and well-rounded," he said. "We're all friends, and if one person is better at one subject than the other, we're willing to help each other. You had the academic atmosphere, but not the competition."
Alice Shimek, the counseling coordinator for the Victoria school district, said each graduating class she's seen come through the district has its own dynamic. Some have very high-achieving, close GPAs, while other classes are more laid back in their race to the top.
"Those students that tend to excel like that, they normally do it through their own motivation and, obviously, we try to encourage them if that's what they want to do," Shimek said.
A lot of times, the students are taking the same Advanced Placement classes, which are given extra weight when factored into the student's GPA. The group at the top of the class can become a small circle competing for small percentage point differences in grades. But Shimek called it a healthy academic competition.
"I've never heard of it being negative or getting rude," she said. "They tend to work well together, and they're all out there competing for the highest grade."
Besides the prestige, the title of valedictorian opens up opportunities for scholarships designated for the highest-ranked student. For example, a state statute allows for universities to exempt valedictorians from paying at least the first year's tuition, with extended scholarships also an option.
Denee Thomas, senior director of enrollment at the University of Houston-Victoria, said the valedictorian title not only helps ensure undergraduate scholarships, but it can also come in handy for graduate or professional school.
"Those things are very competitive and oftentimes (the admissions process) can go all the way back to high school," Thomas said. "Sometimes that's another reason why (being valedictorian) is still coveted. It's important to have kind of a history of being academically elite."