Honors System Proposed To Replace Class Ranking

NEWARK – A new three-tiered scholastic honors system will replace the long-standing valedictorian and salutatorian system at Worcester County high schools because colleges focus on grade point average (GPA) and courses taken in the admissions process, not the top two spots at each high school.

The new academic honors will reward more of the top students in each school, instead of reserving honors to the best two students of each graduating class.

The Worcester County Board of Education will vote on the new system at its February meeting.

The recommendation of the class rank committee, formed this fall, was presented to the Board of Education this week at the January meeting, but the board chose to delay the vote to allow time for public comment.

If the new academic honors measure is passed, Worcester County high school students will have the opportunity to earn summa cum laude (GPA 5.05 and up), magna cum laude (GPA 4.9 to 5.04), or cum laude (GPA 4.9 to 4.89) honors, offering more students a chance to be recognized for a high GPA.

Some courses, such as advanced placement or college level courses, are worth more than a 4.0 in calculating GPA.

The class rank committee surveyed 32 colleges on their admissions criteria and determined that the valedictorian and salutatorian slots had no bearing on college admission or scholarship awards.

“Class rank is not a determining factor,” said committee member Laura Powell, parent of a child attending Worcester County schools.

Grades, courses chosen, leadership experiences and future plans all play a part in college acceptance, Powell said on Tuesday.

Six of the 19 Maryland school systems that answered the committee’s questions about their own practices use something other than the traditional class rank and valedictorian/salutatorian method. The traditional method honoring the top two students goes back to at least the 1950s in Worcester County schools.

The committee voted unanimously to replace the valedictorian and salutatorian system with a different approach to academic honors. Eighty-three percent voted for the three-tiered system.

“Anywhere from 10 to 12 percent of the class would be recognized and this is without students knowing the target,” said Dr. Dick Walker, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Once students know about the new system and what they need to work for, the number of students earning honors would be higher than the estimates the committee made using the last three graduating classes, Walker said.

 The new three-tiered honor system will be phased in for the class of 2011.

“The consensus was this is a better system of recognition so why wait?” Powell said.

The student representatives to the school board, all high school seniors, support the new system.

“It’s kind of cool to have a group of students doing it together,” said Emily Leonard of Pocomoke High School.

“I wish it was implemented this year,” said Lucas Dooley of Snow Hill High School.

Board of Education President Bob Hulburd said these various honors levels allow students the opportunity to secure realistic goals.

“The good thing about having these obtainable numbers is to have something to shoot for,” said Hulburd.

With the valedictorian and salutatorian approach, students are constantly competing for two spots and often try to game the system, Superintendent of Schools Jon Andes said. Students can now compete against themselves instead.

“We know there are a lot more kids who deserve to be recognized for a lot of hard work through school,” Walker said.

Students who in the past took more heavily weighted classes to improve their GPA instead of pursuing a passion such as theater now have more freedom to do just that, Hulburd said.

“I hate to see kids not following their passions,” Hulburd said.

Board of Education member Sara Thompson said it’s time to adapt to current trends, which dictate the valedictorian and salutatorian approach is antiquated. She said colleges want to see well-rounded students.

“The colleges are looking at all around students,” said Thompson.

The new college transcripts do not even include class rank, Hulburd pointed out.

Lou Taylor, Stephen Decatur High School principal, said that the valedictorian and salutatorian approach has become as much a parental award as a student award.

“It’s really stepping up our school system to be about now rather than what was happening in the 1950s … This opens it up much more and it gives more recognition to more kids and that’s the crucial thing. We want to recognize as many kids as possible,” Taylor said.