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High School Weighs Advantages of Latin Honor System Over Class Ranking System

The word “valedictorian” comes from the Latin “val dicere,” meaning “to say goodbye,” and Batavia High – which has long enjoyed the tradition of honoring the valedictorian of each graduating class - has been exploring the growing trend among high schools of saying goodbye to the current class ranking system that places a valedictorian at the top. Instead would be another honor system, also with Latin roots, that many believe more accurately reflects the range of student academic achievement and more strongly encourages students to pursue and develop their interests and strengths. If approved by the Board of Education, adoption of the Latin honor system would not affect current high school students but would be implemented with the next incoming freshmen class.

Batavia High principal, Mr. Paul Kesler, has introduced the topic to the Board and has presented information to staff, students, and parents. The actual system needs little introduction, as many are familiar with colleges’ and universities’ use of the graduates’ distinctions of cum laude (“with praise/honor”), magna cum laude (“with great praise/honor”), and summa cum laude (“with highest praise/honor”). However, the reasoning behind the desire for change needs some explanation.

“A number of teachers and administrators were at a Thomas Guskey conference where they talked about the effect of class rank,” said Mr. Kesler. Dr. Guskey is a well-known and highly respected former teacher and administrator who has gone on to research and advocate for best practices in education. At that conference, one of the points that resonated with attendees from the District was that students who are not in competition for class rank are more likely to encourage each other to take more challenging courses. That interesting statistic opened the door to more exploration, and the counselors, administrators, and teachers who were involved in the subsequent research were impressed by what they found. As they have been presenting information to and receiving feedback from other staff, the students, and parents, understanding and support have been growing even while struggling with some hesitancy to break with a long-standing tradition.

Currently, 60% of high schools have replaced the class rank system with an honor system. While both systems acknowledge student achievement, class ranking is a process of sorting and numbering students according to GPAs, with individuals quite often separated by mere tenths if not hundredths of a point. In addition, class rank is relative to the students’ class – a valedictorian from one graduating class may have a lower or higher GPA than one from another year at the same school because he or she is only judged in relation to the others in his or her graduating class. The Latin honor system, on the other hand, rewards groups of students who have reached set levels of achievement. The GPAs or standards for each level are stable from year to year, while the number of people who achieve those levels may differ.

Another important factor for supporting the switch is that most college admissions officers have reported that class rank is not nearly as important a factor in student acceptance to their schools as is the demonstration of rigorous coursework. With the class ranking system, staff, students, and parents have noted that students, in their quest to be in the top percentage of their graduating class, often play it safe and base their course selections on what will give them the best GPA rather than opting for the classes that may be more rigorous or more aligned to their future pursuits. For the students who prioritize meaningful coursework, they do so at the risk that even a slight dip in their GPA will result in a lesser class rank. As a result, many exceptional students who are earning excellent grades are short-changed because, in rankings, they do not quite make it to the top percentage. The stress of a competitive atmosphere can also interfere with productive learning when students worry about outranking or being outranked by their peers. On the other hand, research is demonstrating that, when students have the opportunity to earn honors that are directly and solely commensurate with their own personal achievement, as is the case with the Latin honor system, more of them are energized to explore and pursue meaningful coursework and to encourage their peers to challenge themselves as well.

While a clear and large majority of staff, students, and parents who have expressed their opinion are very supportive of the change, some are concerned about the break with tradition, such as how student commencement speakers – currently the valedictorian and salutatorian – should be chosen. Mr. Kesler and his committee will continue to solicit feedback and keep those ideas and concerns in mind as they formulate the proposal to be brought to the Board for a vote.

 Graduation cap atop stack of 3 books, with diploma on side.

(Graphic created by jinchen -