Three years ago, I waited with bated breath as the principal of my high school unnecessarily prolonged announcing the valedictorian and salutatorian of my class. When the suspense became palpable, he finally said the word “valedictorian” followed by name, and I leapt from my chair with my arms raised. I even cried “yes!” at my victory.
Victory. What a strange way to perceive academic achievement, especially considering 0.2 GPA points separated the salutatorian and me, but today competition is the name of the academic game. Students are groomed to view good grades like a trophy, but while schools should encourage pride in good grades, they should do so in a way that does not create an atmosphere of “winners” and “losers.”
Academic competitiveness is dehumanizing. When the titles of “valedictorian” and “salutatorian” are on the line, students view other students as obstacles to reaching their academic goals. There is no room for students to learn from each other or for collaboration when their sole focus is a high GPA relative to other students.
Treating school like a playing field puts the focus on the final outcome – the “score.” Students’ learning processes, personal circumstances and individuality are put aside in favor of one glowing number on a transcript – a number that, honestly, measures many students by a metric that allows only one type of student to really shine.
GPA scores students’ ability to be obedient under the guise of measuring their intelligence. A study by Duckworth and Seligman shows that GPA ultimately reflects self-discipline and effort. Both of these traits are easier to find in students with supportive home environments, and creating in-school support communities makes it more likely that students without at-home support will succeed. However, in-school support communities are impossible to foster if students with lower GPAs feel that students with higher GPAs receive preferential treatment.
I saw firsthand how the attitudes of teachers and administrators shifted depending on the students with whom they were interacting. One morning I was caught in a “tardy sweep,” meaning any student late to class received an immediate detention. An administrator simply shook his head at me and told me to get back to class.
Students pick up on this kind of preferential treatment, and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students who might be more inclined to underachieve notice that teachers’ treatment of them is suspect, so in turn they act out and do not apply themselves in the classroom.
For this reason, contextualizing GPA is incredibly important. Turning in assignments on time, performing well on standardized tests and having parents who help are hardly all-encompassing measures of potential.
GPA is not the end-all, be-all of student worth. It overestimates preparedness for students with high GPAs and underestimates it for students with low GPAs. It is, in a word, arbitrary.
To those who think that eliminating valedictorian and salutatorian is tantamount to “giving every kid a trophy,” I say this: When it comes to school, every kid deserves a trophy. Each student deserves to have unique strengths acknowledged. There is no room for unhealthy competition in the classroom, especially when that competition can be won only by one type of student. I applaud the Wake County school board for taking notice of this inequality and implementing a more inclusive course of action.
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the issue.