Schools Eliminating 'Outdated' Valedictorian Status Draws Mixed Reviews

A Colorado school district's move to ditch its valedictorian designation has drawn varied reactions.

Located in Greenwood Village in the Denver metropolitan area, the Cherry Creek School District made the announcement in a recent letter to parents and students in the class of 2026 – the first year when a valedictorian will not be selected.

Diploma
Colorado's Cherry Creek School District is getting rid of its valedictorian designation, citing inconsistencies in the district as well as counsel from higher education institutions and the effect of being a valedictorian on college admissions. iStock/Getty Images

The letter, composed by Cherry Creek School District principals, stated that "educators are constantly researching best practices in relation to student learning"—adding that there was "inconsistency" among the district's schools regarding the number and qualifications of valedictorians.

"The current practice of honoring class valedictorians is one we have discussed for many years," the letter read. "The role of the educator is to teach all of our students, not to rank and sort them. The practices of class rank and valedictorian status are outdated and inconsistent with what we know and believe of our students.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."

While valedictorians will become in a few years a thing of the past in the Cherry Creek School District, high schools in the district will continue to acknowledge students' academic achievements in the form of honor rolls, GPA (grade point average) cords at graduation ceremonies, and department- and school-specific awards.

Abbe Smith, a spokesperson for Cherry Creek Schools, told Newsweek that district leadership worked with the high schools' principals on this decision. There is a caveat: currently, only five of the district's eight high schools have valedictorians, and each school has different criteria for determining which students make valedictorian.

"Our largest high school, Cherry Creek High School—with 4,000 students and a top-ranked high school in the state—has not had a valedictorian going back at least 30 years. ... As a district, we are committed to helping all students find their unique pathway to the future they envision," Smith said.

Thomas Guskey's 2014 book, On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, was cited as one reference for the upcoming change. According to the book, "when students' grades depend on their relative standing among classmates, learning becomes a highly competitive endeavor in which students must compete against each other."

Another book, David Gleason's At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, published in 2017, argues that schools' emphasis on high achievement "for all students necessarily pits them against each other as rivals, forcing them into competition for the same achievement credentials."

Cherry Creek also reached out for counsel to higher education institutions, including the University of Denver—whose vice chancellor of enrollment, Todd Rinehart, said his institution is "not concerned" with the elimination of valedictorians or class ranks as they play no role in the college admissions process.

"Many college and university admission committees stopped considering class rank years ago, as very few high schools still report a class ranking," Rinehart said. "Furthermore, when students apply for college admission during the fall and winter of 12th grade, any status associated with valedictorian and salutatorian are unknown and have never been utilized by our admission committee."

U.S. News & World Report ranked Cherry Creek High School No. 475 nationally, giving the school a total score of 97.4 out of 100.

In January 2022, the school district tweeted that its four-year graduation rate of 90.7 percent for the class of 2021 represented an increase from the previous year—as well as the highest-ever graduation rate in district history.

The district's decision to change future academic designations has perplexed some. One district parent identified as Tiffany said she was "kind of shocked" that some students who put in more effort and tend to a higher workload will not receive a little extra recognition.

"I don't understand why they're taking that away from these hard-working kids," Tiffany told ABC 7 Denver. "We've always instilled in our child that you do your best and when you do your best, you get rewarded."

"And how many of those that graduated were given diplomas because you refuse to acknowledge failure?" a Twitter user named Mark said in reply to the district's tweet regarding the 2021 graduation rate. "Just like you refuse to acknowledge success by eliminating valedictorian awards. Go ahead and work for the lowest common denominator."

In recent years valedictorian speeches have become more controversial in certain instances. In 2019, an Ohio lawmaker proposed a bill requiring that high schools name one valedictorian and one salutatorian in each class. That was reportedly in response to one school district getting rid of GPA-based class rank distinctions in order to improve students' mental health.

Following the 2021 school year, a Texas high school senior and valedictorian named Paxton Smith used her speech time to address reproductive rights in response to state abortion legislation. She said that her diploma was nearly withheld after the fact.

The arguments for and against valedictorians are not new, however. In 2006 Marc Gellman argued that valedictorians should cease to exist, saying that American society collectively prizes grades as a culture – all the while students are cheating to assure their GPAs are better than their fellow classmates.

"Honoring the person who got the best grades in high school establishes the value of intelligence over virtue and, in the long run, it is virtue that will determine the fate of the graduates with far more precision than their grade-point averages," Gellman said.