Views differ on whether high schools should stop naming valedictorians

Area superintendents, sociology professor weigh in after Cherry Creek School District decision

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Soon after the Cherry Creek School District in Arapahoe County announced it would stop designating valedictorians in its high schools, the criticism started pouring in.

“The pursuit of excellence has suffered another blow,” wrote George Brauchler, a former Arapahoe County district attorney, in a column for The Denver Post.

“The crusade against meritocracy, and for mediocrity, in our schools reached a new level,” the Denver Gazette news outlet’s editorial board wrote.

Cherry Creek’s decision even landed a story in national and international news outlet Newsweek, with other media coverage mentioning it too.

The practice of honoring valedictorians is one the district’s high school principals had discussed “for many years,” the principals wrote in a letter to parents.

“The practices of class rank and valedictorian status are outdated and inconsistent with what we know and believe of our students. We believe all students can learn at high levels, and learning is not a competition,” the principals wrote in the letter about the policy, which will begin with the class of 2026.

Cherry Creek’s new policy took aim at “unnecessary pressure,” the letter said, a welcome change in the eyes of Dr. Anna Mueller, an associate professor of sociology who has studied mental health among youths in different parts of the country, including in Colorado.

“How painful and stressful academic pressure for teenagers can be is very real,” Mueller told Colorado Community Media.

‘Healthier school culture’

The decision to cut valedictorian status isn’t unheard of: One of the Colorado communities that made the move years ago is Boulder Valley School District.

Boulder Valley top official Rob Anderson didn’t oversee the decision — he started as superintendent there in 2018 — but “since I’ve been here, no one’s asked me to bring it back,” Anderson said.

Anderson also served as deputy superintendent of academics in Fulton County, Georgia, in the Atlanta area, where the high-achieving Northview High School decided to stop naming valedictorians and salutatorians “because of the additional pressures it puts on kids,” Anderson said.

“Just anecdotally, talking with parents, talking with (the) principal, it created a healthier school culture for those kids that were among the top in the class,” said Anderson, speaking about the Northview High decision.

In Anderson’s view, differences in grade point average, or GPA, at the top of a class can be insignificant.

The gap can sometimes be a tenth or hundredth of a point “when you’re separating highly motivated, incredibly intelligent kids who are trying to reach those types of goals,” Anderson said. “There’s not a lot of room in between.”

“Talk to (students vying for) valedictorian or salutatorian. They’re not sleeping,” said Anderson, who felt kids can be successful without the titles.

Superintendent Chris Fiedler, leader of the Brighton-area 27J Schools district, has not served in any school district where valedictorians are not recognized. He wasn’t sure of whether removing valedictorian designation from high schools would affect student achievement broadly.

“Do I think it drives academic performance? It absolutely does for those kids that are chasing (high rank),” Fiedler said. “I’m of the opinion that it drives competition among kids. I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as it’s healthy.”

Fiedler previously served as superintendent of the Gilpin County School District in Black Hawk and then as superintendent of Deer Trail School District 26J in Deer Trail, according to 27J’s district website. He’s co-chair of the Denver Area School Superintendents Council.

“I don’t believe always that the letter grade students earn in a class is always an accurate representation of what they learned or not,” Fiedler said. “Some of the classes I learned the most in I didn’t get an A in.”

Michael Mazenko, a Cherry Creek High School teacher, a former school administrator and a past gifted education coordinator, argued in an op-ed in The Denver Post that “ranking can encourage kids to avoid hard classes out of fear of losing a decimal point.”

The competition for valedictorian status and rank creates “gamesmanship” and limits students from choosing courses based on growth and interest “to instead choose what’s best to manipulate GPA,” Mazenko wrote.

On the other hand, chasing a high GPA can also push students to load their schedule with lots of Advanced Placement and honors courses. Fiedler said both scenarios are realistic.

“Kids who were vying to be valedictorian, salutatorian, they would steer away from non-weighted classes because it would hurt their GPA. If the school has band or yearbook, valuable classes … kids wouldn’t take those classes,” Anderson said.

Anderson said pressure to reach a certain class rank encourages high-achieving students to “overload themselves.”

Those kids “not only fill up their school year but fill up their summers, take classes beyond the school year, beyond the normal course load a student would take,” Anderson said.

Asked whether the decision of whether to recognize a valedictorian affects middle- or lower-achieving students, Fiedler said: “My opinion is no.”

“I believe that there are probably 20 to 25 kids, maybe 30, maybe 35, that go into high school their freshman year with that on their mind. And after freshman year, it quickly sorts itself” and some kids stop pursuing that rank, Fiedler said.

In general, Fiedler felt that “competition is good and healthy” and that focusing on rank is a valid practice.

“I would argue that in most if not all of life, we keep score. If we’re not going to honor valedictorians anymore … are we no longer going to have state wrestling champions?” Fiedler said.

“Life is filled with competition,” he added.

‘Downplay the achievements’

Cherry Creek School District declined to make an official available for an interview about the valedictorian policy, but district spokesperson Abbe Smith said that Cherry Creek High School did not have a valedictorian process even before the district’s announcement, which came in the principals’ letter dated March 9.

“Cherry Creek High School, the district’s flagship and arguably one of the top high schools in the nation, eliminated valedictorian and ranking of students more than 30 years ago,” Mazenko, the former school administrator, wrote in the Post.

“Ranking can actually compromise and downplay the achievements of the school’s high number of extraordinary students,” he continued.

Cherry Creek district will continue to acknowledge the academic achievements of students through other methods, such as honor roll, GPA cords at graduation, and department- and school-specific awards, according to the principals’ letter.

‘Cultural shift’

Mueller, the associate professor of sociology, said academic pressure can push some young people to a concerning place.

“Some of my past research has really shown that academic pressure can play a role in making kids feel like life is not worth living — like life is unbearable and that suicide is their only escape,” said Mueller, who works for Indiana University.

Her study, titled “Adolescents Under Pressure,” underscored the importance of addressing the social causes — for example, academic pressure — of youths’ psychological pain, according to a summary on her website.

Pressure from “narrow beliefs” about what makes “good kids and good families” can constrain how kids imagine the pathway to adulthood, Mueller said.

“It makes failures that much more intense because it seems like absolutely everything is on the line,” Mueller said. “If you fail that one test or fail that one class or get a C on that one class … it’s this much bigger, existential thing of ‘I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, Z long-term goals.’”

She added: “If we’re going to encourage people to push their academic limits, or their athletic limits or their nerd limits, we have to make it OK to fail.”

While Mueller doesn’t think ending valedictorian designation will change everything about that type of pressure, she thinks it’s “the sort of policy that’s a step in the right direction.”

It could act as “a symbol to the larger community of ‘let’s make this cultural shift,’” Mueller said. But, she added, such a shift would have to also be supported by other school policies, by parents and by kids themselves, and by teachers.

One source of pressure that exists outside the reach of high school policy: the cost of paying for college.

Part of what puts pressure on students is the pursuit of merit scholarships, which are more competitive than merely getting into college, Mueller said. She argues students don’t need to attend a “highly selective university” to receive a good education.

“I would actually argue if we could take some of the pressure off parents for paying for college and students for paying for college, I think that would (benefit) our nation’s mental health,” Mueller said. “Probably parents and students.”

Cherry Creek School District, Centennial Colorado, valedictorian, Boulder Valley, Colorado Springs, Ellis Arnold, education

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