You Might Not Need The Best Grades To Be Valedictorian

You Might Not Need The Best Grades To Be Valedictorian

There is no perfect way to measure knowledge and academic ability, but criteria such as ACT scores are not the way to go.

Are you a fan of standardized testing? No, I didn't think so. Neither am I. That is why I am surprised to find out that my old high school will soon use ACT scores and other unusual criteria as significant factors in determining who receives the honors of valedictorian and salutatorian.

Before I begin, I want to clarify that I have not yet delved into the details as to why my high school is making these changes. I am simply writing about my reaction to what I read in the updated handbook after hearing talk about the new rules. There is no doubt that the changes have been made for important and logical reasons; I simply want to share my opinion on why I believe titles such as valedictorian and salutatorian should be based strictly on GPA, and why standardized tests like the ACT are not fair measurements of knowledge and ability. I am fully aware that the traditional practice of using GPA to determine these honors can be a controversial topic.For instance, it has led to some schools having graduation classes with dozens of valedictorians at the same time. Another worry is that awarding these titles based on GPA prevents a collaborative school environment because of intense competition. While these are valid concerns, they are surely not the norm in most high schools. From what I remember as a valedictorian myself, they are certainly not concerns in the high school that I attended. This leads to my next point. Titles such as valedictorian and salutatorian are considered academic honors. Therefore, they should continue to rely solely on high school academics. That is not possible when relying mainly on ACT scores instead of GPA. The knowledge and academic performance from nearly four years of high school cannot be adequately measured by a mere three-hour test.

Another component of my high school's new requirements is that contenders for the titles must be a member of the National Honor Society. This seems to stray away from the academic focus. While academic excellence is an important value of NHS, other focuses such as service and leadership should not be tied to the title of valedictorian. Do not get me wrong- I think that all of NHS's values are very important and I was an officer in it myself, but I see it as a very separate honor from being valedictorian.

I should clarify that the new policies at my high school still require valedictorians and salutatorians to have a high GPA. Students must receive Summa Cum Laude honors in order to be eligible contenders, which means they must earn a 4.0 GPA or higher (up to a 4.5 GPA can be earned with honors and AP classes). This helps ensure that simply guessing well on the ACT is not enough, but for close contenders, it still results in largely a game of luck.

My personal experience might help explain why that is so. I took the ACT several times throughout all years of high school. I rented books about it from the library, took a prep course through the school, and even had a few private tutoring sessions at the end of junior year as a desperate attempt to score high. My scores steadily improved overall, which is the logical outcome. If the ACT is so good at determining academic abilities, though, why was my score on the reading section highest during freshman year? Flukes like that are not unusual phenomena--there are even students whose overall ACT drops after taking it a second time.

My highest score was a 32, which is fairly decent, but it cost quite a bit of money to get there. Not everyone can afford to pay for the ACT more than once, let alone to pay for tutoring. With tutoring, my own score jumped an entire four points within just a few months. Did I learn 4 points worth of material during those months? No. I learned the tips and tricks of the game, combined with a bit (or a lot) of good luck. Titles such as valedictorian and salutatorian shouldn't depend on either of those two factors.

Studying for the ACT is important for college admissions, and that is stressful enough as it is. Making the test a part of achieving the highest academic honor in high school is unnecessary. It is more important to devote time and energy to classes and extracurriculars rather than memorizing material that is routinely on the ACT right before the test.

You might be wondering what happens if eligible students have tied ACT scores, especially in a school with a few hundred students per class. There is a backup plan set up for that, a backup plan for the backup plan, and so on. What these plans consist of, though, is not much different than the ACT itself.

If there are contending students tied with the highest ACT, the valedictorian and salutatorian are determined by points earned from state testing. This is similarly problematic to the ACT. If students are still tied, then GPA will finally be the deciding factor.

While I doubt there will still be a tie after this, there are more backups. One includes choosing the individual with the most service hours submitted for National Honors Society. Maybe it is just me, but it doesn't seem right to claim the title of high school valedictorian or salutatorian because you complete more service hours than your competitor.

There is no perfect way to measure knowledge and academic ability. There probably never will be. I am certain, though, that criteria such as ACT scores are not the way to get as close to perfect as possible.

Cover Image Credit: Petya McNeal

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