Durham News

Durham Public Schools to keep valedictorian, salutatorian, add Latin honors

Durham Public Schools will preserve the tradition of valedictorians and salutatorians at high school graduations while also adding three new Latin categories to honor students.

Starting next school year, an unlimited number of students will also have the opportunity to be recognized for graduating cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude.

Districts throughout the area have recently weighed how, if at all, to should change graduation protocol since the state mandated a new grading system that took effect this school year.

Under the old system, districts could operate on a 7-point scale, meaning that a 93 to 100 was considered an A, an 85 to 92 was considered a B and so forth.

Starting with the 2015-16 school year, however, all state districts were required to move to a standard 10-point scale – making a 90 to 100 an A and so forth.

What’s more, although an A- received fewer quality points toward a GPA than an A-plus in the past, all As (and all levels of other letter grades) are now valued the same.

This raised concerns among educators, who worried the new system would lead to grade inflation and multiple people tying for the same GPA and, possibly, valedictorian.

In response, Wake County voted last month to end the tradition of valedictorians and salutatorians and move solely to the Latin system. Specifically, those students who hit certain GPA marks will all receive the same distinction during graduation.

A task force within the Durham Public Schools has been exploring how the district should also respond, said Assistant Superintendent Debbie Pittman.

“What we have done is looked at how we would now use class rank,” Pittman told the school board last week. “We know GPAs are going to be compressed in some ways.”

Ultimately, the task force recommended that the school district add the Latin honors system to graduation but also keep the custom of valedictorians and salutatorians, said Beth Cross, director of Advanced Academics.

The Latin system

Used widely on college campuses, the Latin system usually honors students at three levels: cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude. Typically students can attain these levels by either making it into a certain percentile of their class or by achieving a specific grade point average, said Cross.

In her presentation to the board Thursday, Cross said the task force looked at both possibilities and decided honoring students who hit a certain grade point average was best.

After all, she said, establishing the Latin honors system based on being in the top 5, 10 or 15 percent of the class would mean that there would be different GPA standards at different schools since class sizes would drastically impact who made the cut-off.

“The cutoffs would be different, which means that the goal for a student would constantly fluctuate,” said Cross. “There’s not way for a student to make a goal for him or herself or monitor the individual success for that goal.”

Instead, the task force recommended specific GPA cut-offs for the three Latin honor distinctions instead.

The new policy will use the Latin honors system of recognizing students with a weighted GPA of 4.25 or higher with the distinction of summa cum laude. Seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 would receive the distinction of magna cum laude.

Seniors with a weighted GPA of 3.75 to 3.99 could receive the designation of cum laude.

3rd quarter cut-off

District cut-offs for determining what honors the students will receive at graduation will be third quarter for most schools in the district, said Cross. Meanwhile, Middle College High School and Early College High School will have until the end of the year since their schools operate differently.

Cross said the task force recommended the GPA cut-off times with the contingency that the cut-offs can be automated. This would reduce the risk for human error, she said.

She said the new system will not replace the old tradition of valedictorians and salutatorians speeches – two honors which have traditionally gone to the two seniors with the highest grade-point average.

Instead, schools will have the discretion of planning their graduation programs, said Cross. For instance, a principal might hold a contest to see who submits the best speech for graduation. Or they might select the senior class president to speak. Or if there’s one person ranked first in their class, that person might speak.

“The high schools could manage how to handle the speeches,” said Pittman.

Meanwhile, even more students will have the opportunity to be honored for academic achievement with the new Latin system, said Cross.

District spokesman Chip Sudderth said that because the district will be keeping the old distinctions and adding new ones, the district will implement the new system for the 2016-17 school year.

In comparison, Wake County plans to start the Latin system without valedictorian and salutatorian speeches with the Class of 2019.

“We’re not taking away that recognition, so we can move faster because we’re keeping both,” said Sudderth.