Jim Craven / For NBC News
South Medford High School is graduating 21 valedictorians next weekend. They are: Luis Ayala, Danny Barnes, Kealani Creech, Riley Finnegan, Alisha Gaffney, Lily Hoffman, Brianna Levesque, Sarah Kapple, Madeleine Marcus, Rachel Mattson, Carmen Mejia, Dellen Miller, Austin Morgan, Kacy Nowak, Samuel Pennington, Zachary Schneider, Lilian Taft, Chloe Thomas, Niko Tutland, Andrea Van Pelt and Joslyn Vargas. They were photographed in Medford, Ore., on May 31, 2013.
When the seniors say farewell to South Medford High in Oregon next weekend, one of the school's 21 valedictorians will lead the flag salute, another valedictorian will recite the history of the 365-member class, and a third will introduce the keynote speaker. But all 21 can enjoy a sweet piece of the ceremony, if they choose.
At Enterprise High in Alabama, the valedictorians — all 34 of them — plucked names from a hat to gain coveted speaking spots during their commencement earlier this month. And at Bluffton High in Ohio, more than 10 percent of this year’s 84-member senior class carried the title “valedictorian.”
Zach Schneider talks about his high school class and the 21 valedictorians who are included in it.
As graduation season peaks, numerous high schools are rightfully praising their clusters of valedictorians yet also forsaking a time and tradition when just one elite student received that honor — along with the lone ranking of No. 1 in class. In fact, at South Medford High, all of those 21 valedictorians can tell colleges they are No. 1 in their class.
This is where “New School” has crushed “Old School.” And this is where college administrators say they are growing increasingly suspicious about the surge in applicants who boast the laurels of “valedictorian” and “head of class.”
“Yes, it has definitely watered things down a little bit,” said Jim Rawlins, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Definitely, the more ultra-selective universities have to be more critical and skeptical of class ranks than before.
“The question is: Where do you cross the line? If a school has those extremely high-end numbers (of valedictorians), then I would quickly assume that grading isn't very rigorous at all at that school,” added Rawlins, also the executive director of admissions at Colorado State University. “But I'm not sure I could say what number that needs to drop to for things to not seem out of whack to me again. Is five the limit? Three? Eight? I'm not sure. But my gut instinct as an admission director is that I'd start to wonder a bit even at four.”
In southwestern Oregon, the Medford Mail Tribune noticed the trend locally — Ashland High has 10 valedictorians this spring, North Medford High has 10, and South Medford has its 21. The newspaper recently published an editorial with the headline “…and all the children were above average,” a nod to Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon and a swipe at the notion that all children deserve a ribbon. Editor Bob Hunter wrote that 21 valedictorians “raises some eyebrows, as well as questions about grade inflation” and suggested “perhaps it doesn’t mean as much when it’s shared with 20 other students.”
But South Medford principal Kevin Campbell, prepping for a June 8 graduation ceremony, disagreed with the critique and said he remains “a big fan” of a grading system that allows all seniors who have amassed 4.0 grade point averages to claim the titles valedictorian and “No. 1 in class.”
At South Medford, where about 1,800 students are enrolled, officials ultimately total up the honors and advanced-placement classes completed by each valedictorian to mathematically determine a true top student who is designated “first in class” and who gets to offer the farewell address, Campbell said.
“When I’m on the stage at graduation, watching each valedictorian come up and get a spot, they’re having a blast. I never detect any feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh this has gotten too big to be anything.’ They’re so amped to be able to say their part (as valedictorian),” Campbell said.
One of those 21 valedictorians, Zach Schneider, said his class and those previous have benefited from top-tier teachers and administrators yet they've also been steeled and motivated by the recently rugged economic times which hit Medford "especially hard."
"In light of the recession, I can see a lot of the students really wanting to go and try harder to get into college and go into more successful careers. So a lot of the students at our school really strive to be great. That's raising our valedictorian numbers," said Schneider, 18, who will attend Oregon State University next fall and study computer engineering.
Being in classes routinely with other seniors who are valedictorians make him feel like he's "in good company" with that honor, he said, and also allows him to see "the others around me have also worked extremely hard along the way."
"I don't feel any different being one of 21 versus if I was one of three because I know what I have accomplished and I know what others have accomplished. And we've all accomplished different things," he said.
His mother Jennifer Schneider looks at it this way: "He's graduating at the top of his class with A's and that just takes our breath away. Yes, 21 kids have perfect 4.0s. But I love how each has different talents. Where one might be more scientific, another is more creative. I love that they incorporate that into how they rank the kids."
As for Campbell, the principal, the more valedictorians, the better, he says.
Jim Rawlins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling talks about what goes into considering a student's college application and the role a valedictorian label has on determining the applicant's standing.
"I’ll take as many as we can get here. If I can get 34 valedictorians, that’s awesome because I know those kids have the work ethic and the training to get through college," says Campbell.
With South Medford High in a growth spurt, 2013 marked a bumper crop of valedictorians. Last year , the school had 18 valedictorians and the year before, 14, Campbell said.
At Enterprise High in southern Alabama, this year’s valedictorian count — 34, or about 8 percent of the 439-member gradating class — will shrink to just one by 2017. Presently, teens with the highest GPA automatically earn valedictorian honors at Enterprise, creating large, first-place ties. Starting with next year’s freshman class, however, advanced-placement classes will be tallied along with overall GPA.
“Four years from now, that will be the first group to have one valedictorian,” said Enterprise principal Matt Rodgers.
“We’ve talked to a lot of college folks (about producing multiple valedictorians in one class). A lot of the parents have the misconception that if their child is a valedictorian, they get a college scholarship. But most schools base scholarships on ACT and SAT scores, outside activities, honors, community service — not necessarily on whether the student is a valedictorian.”
While some celebrate the trend as signaling a rising wave of sharp thinkers, critics point to "grade inflation," the notion that too many teachers dole out too many easy A's, allowing students who are smart — though perhaps not the most elite minds in the school — to collect four consecutive years of straight A's. That mathematical logjam can leave a pack of seniors in the same class all tied with 4.0 cumulative GPAs when graduation arrives.
At the same time, scattered students have "gamed" the system on occasion. At Pittsburgh's North Hill Senior High, school officials decided to stop ranking classmates in 2010 because some students on the advanced-placement track had turned in medical waivers to avoid physical education, music and other specialty classes. Their reason: Had those students garnered anything less than perfect grades in those non-weighted classes, that mark have would permanently reduced their GPA, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
In the end, being at the top of the class may not count for as much as some think it does. In a recent survey, college admissions chiefs were asked to list the attributes on which they put “considerable importance” when selecting new students. Only 19 percent of those officials listed “class rank” as a major element in their decision, reports the Arlington, Va.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, which conducted the poll.
The same survey showed that the strength of a student's high school curriculum, grades earned in college-prep courses, and a written essay were among seven determining factors that carried more weight than class rank.
And as more college administrators purposely stop salivating over landing a valedictorian, that shift isn't solely about a title that has lost some luster; it's about granting dubious scholarships, said Rawlins of Colorado State.
In the past, many colleges typically offered automatic scholarships to the valedictorians from each high school in that state. But at some high schools where students barely missed the ever-widening cut for valedictorian honors — causing some parents to sue the schools — those sorts of scholarship programs quickly turned into, Rawlins said, “a feeding frenzy."
But for the 21 No. 1s at South Medford High, there is only camaraderie, said Jennifer Schneider, mom to Zach, one of those top seniors.
"The group of kids that he has tracked with over the years, we've known several of them all the way back to elementary school," she said. "So to see the same group of kids accelerate and become such successful, wonderful men and women makes us so proud."