The Sidney City School board recently approved to change the procedure for selecting and recognizing their top-graduating students. Changing the distinction from Valedictorian to Summa Cum Laude allows us to honor those elite students and their diverse accomplishments. The decision to change was made with great care, and with all students in mind. Although, at first glance, this change looks like a big departure from tradition and our nearly 160-year history, the new procedure still honors our brightest students while adjusting to fit an ever-changing secondary educational landscape.
Conferring the title valedictorian to one student in recent years became nearly impossible with the explosion of weighted classes and more diverse course offerings. It became necessary for SHS to change the way we recognize our very best students. Students who earn the rank of Summa Cum Laude are absolutely our most accomplished students and should have the honor and distinction that this recognition will confer.
Sidney High School offers more Advanced Placement (AP) classes and College Credit Plus (CCP) classes than any school in Shelby County. Twelve AP classes and 15 CCP classes are offered at SHS and students are also able to attend a two or four-year college and take additional college classes while still in high school. Students taking these courses are earning actual college credit that can be applied at the college or university they attend following graduation. The instructors of these classes are certified and have a great deal of experience. SHS offers a five-point weight to these AP/CCP classes, while all other classes are on the traditional four-point scale. Meaning an A in an AP or CCP class is worth 5.0, a B is 4.0, C is 3.0, etc. These classes are weighted to reward students because of the significantly increased amount of work and study time necessary to earn an A.
Previous changes to the valedictorian procedure.
SHS introduced AP classes in the mid to late 1980s and those classes were given weighted grades. Beginning about 20 years ago, then Principal Greg Johnson adjusted the procedure to adapt to the weighted grades; however, the problems SHS administration experienced then are the same problems administration is dealing with now. The requirement for Valedictorian from 1996 to 2013 simply required a student to earn all A’s and take all five AP classes; this was increased to seven classes in 2014. Students who took the five AP classes (Calculus, English 11, English 12, American History, and Government) and took Band and Choir had a lower GPA than those students who took only the core classes.
As a result of these requirements, multiple students were named valedictorians many years. The following chart shows the number of valedictorians over the last two decades. These valedictorians met a minimum standard of all A’s and AP classes, they did not all have the same GPA.
SHS in 2015 and 2016 recognized one valedictorian and one salutatorian as our top student. While honoring one person as the top student is the most desirable and traditional solution, several students and parents and school staff pointed out that students could “game” the system by only taking the minimum number of weighted classes and students who took more classes of the non-weighted variety were actually lowering their GPA.
Two top students each have seven class periods on their schedule. Student A takes CCP Physics, CCP American History, CCP English, CCP Pre-Calculus, CCP Spanish and two study halls; Student B takes the same five CCP classes, but instead of taking study halls to fill in her schedule, she takes Marching Band and Computer Information Systems. Student A’s highest potential GPA is 5.0; Student B’s highest potential GPA is 4.71. Any reasonable person would say that Student B enriched their education and took two additional classes, but simply because those additional classes are not weighted, her GPA is lower.
Another quirk of the system is that Spanish III and Spanish IV classes are CCP/AP and count as a total of 4 CCP classes, while only German IV is CCP/AP. Two students taking the exact same schedule for four years, except they each chose to study a different foreign language; the student taking Spanish would have the advantage of three additional weighted classes over the student taking German. The question becomes, would students, teachers and parents be comfortable giving the Spanish student a designation of valedictorian and not the German student?
Why would we want to “punish” the student for taking additional classes? How can we make sure students are taking classes that are challenging as well as enriching for those students? It would be a shame if a student did not take full advantage of all SHS offers. Courses include but are not limited to: computer programing classes, media productions, FFA, Marketing Ed, Workforce academy, fine and performing arts as well as many electives in all four subject areas. Why not take additional classes, enrich your mind, and challenge yourself? By selecting one Valedictorian we were eliminating students from this honor simply because they took more classes.
A committee was formed to look at this situation including two administrators, two parents, two board members, and two teachers. The committee had two goals: one, honor the best students at SHS, and two, find a way to encourage students to take as many classes they want to enrich their academic careers. The committee looked at many other schools and there are nearly as many different ways to honor the top students as there are schools. If there were one way, we would all follow that procedure; the magic solution does not exist. The committee decided to bestow the honor of Summa Cum Laude on those students that have a GPA of 4.25 and greater who also earn the Ohio Honor’s Diploma. This honor will be given only to the elite students who take an incredibly rigorous course load. Some years only one such student may earn this designation, while other years eight or more may earn it. The requirements for Summa Cum Laude may be adjusted as classes, State requirements, and additional opportunities arise. This does not do away with GPA-based class rank, and students will still be able to use class rank for scholarships and college.
This is not a lowering of the standards; it is, however, recognition that we have unbelievably talented students with varied interests and passions. To not recognize a student as the best and brightest because that student has a passion for Art, or music, or programming or business management is simply wrong. We must have a way to honor student for their significant accomplishments while not punishing their academic passion and curiosity, and we believe this new system will do that.
The writer is a teacher and Social Studies Department chair at Sidney High School. Bickel has 15 years of experience teaching high school social studies, 14 of which have been at Sidney High. He was also one of the committee members reevaluating the GPA system at Sidney High School. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.