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Editorial: Elimination of class ranks was the right move

A tradition usually becomes a tradition because it has inherent cultural value. But sometimes tradition is nothing more than an old way of doing things.

On Tuesday night, the Merrimack Valley School Board recognized in which category the concept of class rank belongs when members voted to replace the valedictorian-salutatorian system with three levels of academic honor: cum laude (with honor), magna cum laude (with great honor) and summa cum laude (with highest honor).

In explaining the reasons for the change, Merrimack Valley Principal Michael Jette said it really is just a matter of eliminating the tension class ranks cause among students and parents, and also creating an opportunity to honor all high-achieving students, not only those who finish on top statistically.

Of course, every break from tradition comes with a backlash, which in this case included accusations of political correctness gone wild and the incessant coddling of America’s youth.

School board member Lorrie Carey lamented that “when everybody is the winner and nobody is the top dog, it takes away from the competitive edge that exists in life.”

But what does the title “valedictorian” really tell us about a student? The answer is, not as much as you would think.

There is no universal formula for calculating grade point average. That means that a student who finishes at the top of the class can be assessed only in terms of his or her classmates, not other valedictorians from other school districts and states. And what about the size of the high school? How do you accurately compare the performance of a student from a graduating class of 100 with a student from a graduating class of 500? Do you automatically assume that the accomplishment of the student from the larger school is somehow more significant?

The effect of class rank on college admissions is also often overstated. In a study in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hoover found that only 19 percent of colleges and universities give significant consideration to class rank in the application process.

“Among the traditional measures of student quality, class rank is widely described by admissions officers as the fuzziest,” he wrote.

When all of these factors are taken into consideration, what’s left? Only competition for competition’s sake – and to suggest that that kind of competition is good, or even healthy, for students reveals a cynical view of education. Schools should urge students to push themselves and risk failure, not play it safe in order to protect their GPA. To foster the idea that the pursuit of excellence should include obsessive perfectionism is a dangerous disservice to students.

Merrimack Valley’s decision to eliminate class rank in favor of levels of honor will not eliminate students’ competitive drive but rather transfer it inwardly.

Like the long-distance runner, the student should compete against his or her own perceived limitations. For their part, schools should encourage students to continue that inner competition throughout a lifetime of learning, and they are better able to do that when all students stay in the race.

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