Each Ohio public high school would be required to name one valedictorian and one salutatorian if a bill being introduced by State Rep. Niraj Antani becomes law.
Antani said he was surprised to learn last month that a growing number of schools are doing away with the valedictorian title — which generally goes to the student with the highest grade-point average.
Some Dayton-area schools are choosing instead to honor a group of 10-20 “distinguished graduates” based on grades, test scores, leadership roles or other criteria. And some schools are moving to the common college system, recognizing all students over a certain GPA level as “summa cum laude” (Latin for “with highest honor”), but without numerically ranking those students.
“No. 1, competition is good. Competition breeds success,” Antani said. “We don’t want to become an ‘everyone gets a trophy’ society. … As a society, I think we have to fight the battle and say that competition is good. Yes, it’s hard and stressful, but that’s OK.”
Leaders at Mason High School, which will stop naming a valedictorian next year, studied the issue for a year before deciding the competitive culture at their school was not healthy for top students.
Some teens were forgoing sleep and piling on stress as they pushed their search for the highest grades to extreme levels. Others were choosing courses based largely on GPA impact, skipping options that aligned with their career or life interests, if they were not heavily weighted in the GPA system.
“I understand the whole mental health issue, etc., but these are the best of best, and we should encourage them to compete,” Antani said, adding that the state budget bill includes more funding for mental health supports in schools. “If you don’t want to be in the competition, don’t.”
Asked how adding a new state mandate fit with general Republican principles of smaller government and local control, Antani compared it to the way the state sets education content standards, and each school chooses curriculum to teach that material.
In an interview Monday, Antani said each school would have the flexibility to set their own formula using GPA or other qualifiers to determine “at least one valedictorian and at least one salutatorian.” But the formal bill language Antani sent out said each school would have to designate only one of each. That would affect numerous schools that name multiple valedictorians, including Beavercreek, Northmont, the Miami Valley Career Tech Center and others.
Antani had two valedictorians from his House district talk about their experience. Both said they would have been upset to lose the valedictorian title, mostly because of what it meant to them, rather than any particular benefit they gained from it.
Valley View High School valedictorian Cameron Carter said she was one of three students whose grades were so close that the No. 1 rank flip-flopped from semester to semester.
“It was stressful, but I loaded up on (College Credit Plus) classes. I think took seven at one point through Sinclair, and my GPA was (No. 1),” Carter said. “I’m going into college as a second-semester sophomore, and I’ll be $40,000 less in debt. That was pretty good for me.”
West Carrollton valedictorian Jessica Orozco said having the concrete, reachable goal of being valedictorian inspired her to work harder.
“I missed out on a lot — hanging out with friends, going to parties — because I was studying instead,” Orozco said. “Seeing what that resulted in made me feel a lot better about myself. I felt like I needed that.”
Some schools, including Fairmont High School, try to find a balance. They name a single valedictorian and salutatorian in each graduating class of 500-plus, but also recognize large numbers of students at the senior awards and the graduation ceremony for high test scores, school leadership positions or GPAs that make them “summa cum laude.”
Officials at both Tippecanoe High School and the Dayton Early College Academy suggested that having the highest GPA is not necessarily proof of being the best student. Tipp Principal Steve Verhoff said students could game the system via their choices of certain higher-weighted classes.
DECA assistant superintendent Dave Taylor said his school doesn’t name a valedictorian in part because of the way the competition pits students against one another, while the school’s goal is more cooperative — for all to lift each other up.
But Antani continues to cite the value of competition.
“At the end of the day, there is someone who is the best. … Just because there is a winner and a loser does not mean that that is bad and we should eliminate that system. This is how life works,” Antani said. “Football probably brings a lot of stress and heartache to those players, but I don’t see any schools eliminating football. So why should we eliminate academic competition?”