LANCASTER, N.Y. – At many American high schools, the graduation-day tradition of crowning a valedictorian is becoming a thing of the past.
The ranking of students from No. 1 on down, based on grade-point averages, has been fading steadily for about the past decade. In its place are honors that recognize everyone who scores at a certain threshold — using Latin honors, for example. This year, one school in Tennessee had 48 valedictorians.
About half of schools no longer report class rank, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Administrators worry about the college prospects of students separated by large differences in class rank despite small differences in their GPAs, and view rankings as obsolete in an era of high expectations for every student, association spokesman Bob Farrace said. There are also concerns about intense, potentially unhealthy competition and students letting worries about rank drive their course selections.
Among those weighing a change is Lancaster High School in suburban Buffalo, where students are leading an exploration of replacing valedictorian-salutatorian recognitions with the college-style Latin honors of summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude.
The principal, Cesar Marchioli, said he's neutral on the issue, though he feels for the 11th-ranked student who falls just short of the recognition awarded to the top 10 seniors honored at the annual banquet.
Graduating Lancaster senior Connor Carrow, 17, has pressed for the switch to Latin honors since his sophomore year, well before landing just out of the top 10, at No. 14, while serving as student union president and playing varsity lacrosse and hockey. He said it's a better fit with the school's collaborative and cooperative ideals.
"You're striving for that (honor) personally, but you're not hoping that you're better than these other 400 people next to you," said Carrow.
The view was somewhat different from the No. 1 spot occupied by Carrow's classmate Daniel Buscaglia, who also played saxophone in several performance ensembles and volunteered in his town's youth bureau. While he doesn't oppose the change, Buscaglia expects the competition in high school, although it was mostly friendly, will help him at Cornell University in the fall.
Elsewhere, commenters have peppered news websites with disparaging comparisons to giving "participation trophies" to avoid hurt feelings, while supporters point out the often statistically insignificant differences that separate students.
Rankings still play an important part in aspects of the college admissions process. There are scholarships for the top-ranked students, and the number of top students at colleges is factored into college rankings. Class ranks are also credited with improving diversity at the University of Texas, where a law guaranteed that a school's top 10 percent would be accepted into a public university.
Colleges are adjusting to the increasing number of applications arriving without class rank, though many applications still ask for it if available. Even so, students' individual grades and the rigor of the curriculum they chose tend to weigh more heavily, said Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
"More and more schools are moving toward a more holistic process. They look deeper into the transcript," Gottlieb said.
Wisconsin's Elmbrook School District has for several years ranked only the valedictorian and salutatorian, and only then because the state awards scholarships to schools' top two graduates, according to Assistant Superintendent Dana Monogue. The change has been accepted by colleges and community alike, Monogue said.
"We are encouraged by any movement that helps students understand that they're more than a score, that they're more than a rank," she said.
Tennessee's Rutherford County schools give the valedictorian title to every student who meets requirements that include a 4.0 grade-point average and at least 12 honors courses. Its highly ranked Central Magnet School had 48 valedictorians this year, about a quarter of its graduating class.
The day rankings came out at Hammond High School in Columbia, Maryland, students were privately told their number — but things didn't stay private for long.
"That was the only thing everyone was talking about," said Mikey Peterson, 18, who shrugged off his bottom-third finish and will attend West Virginia University in the fall.
A spokesman for the Howard County, Maryland, district said schools recognize their top 5 percent so students can include it on college applications and hasn't considered changing.
"There was a big emphasis on where you landed," said Peterson's classmate Vicki Howard, 18. "It made everything 10 times more competitive."
Peterson's mother, Elizabeth Goshorn, said she can't walk into his school without hearing good things about her affable son, but worries about how rankings can affect a teenager's confidence.
"It has such an impact on them as to how they perceive themselves if you're putting rankings on them," she said.