School honors aren’t what they used to be

March 12, 2014

In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, it is said that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

They apparently have nothing on the kids in Washington County schools, at least based on the honor rolls submitted for publication in the newspaper by our area school districts.

Some of the listings are relatively modest, but others are quite eye-catching. The one that really got our attention recently, from one of our larger high schools, Canon-McMillan, took up nearly a whole newspaper page. A quick count showed that in the senior class alone, about 80 students were being recognized with distinguished honors, another 65 with high honors and 105 more with honors. That’s a total of 250 seniors in a district that graduated about 340 students from last year’s senior class. The numbers were similar in grades nine, 10 and 11. And we don’t mean to single out Canon-McMillan. They’re far from the only district in the area in which half or more of the student body makes the cut.

We can imagine this sort of exchange between a parent and student:

Mom: “Hey, you made the honor roll!”

Kid: “Yeah, everybody’s on it.”

At what point, we wonder, does being on an honor roll stop being much of an honor?

We certainly understand the purpose of an honor roll, which is to recognize the work of high-achieving students, but we have to ponder what kind of “super-students” are populating our schools today when we see how honor rolls have grown by such leaps and bounds over the years.

Our guess is grade inflation is one culprit. How many school districts still require students to score 94 or higher on a test to earn an A? Do students these days get more direction about what’s going to be on those tests? What are the grade-point averages required to make the honor roll? Have those bars been lowered over the years? And how many teachers, when grading a paper, err on the side of a higher mark because they know that in this day and age, parents increasingly believe their children are “special” and should be treated as such? In the old days – when getting to school meant a 10-mile walk, uphill both ways (wink, wink) – a student who received a poor grade or got in dutch for misbehaving in class was in even more trouble when he faced his parents. Now, it seems more often the parents side with little Bobby and Susie and blame the teachers and school administrators. Their precious children could not possibly be the problem.

Also, the days of a 4.0 grade-point average being the height of achievement are long gone. Kids who take higher-level courses in high school get “bonus points” for doing so. What was once four points for an A becomes five, or more. Graduating with a 4.0 average won’t allow a kid to even think about breathing the rarefied air of a valedictorian.

Except that being a valedictorian isn’t all that rare in some school districts.

A couple of years ago, Peters Township School District had not one, not two, or even 10, valedictorians. It had 40. In another era, being a valedictorian meant that a person was being singled out as the very best student in a graduating class. One might understand if there were a year here and there when making a distinction between two clearly superior students was simply too difficult, and a school might have dual valedictorians. But 40? Talk about watering down an honor. To be fair, Peters Township since revamped its system, breaking up the top honors into several categories of academic high achievement. How many were in the most elite category last year, those with grade-point averages of 5.0 or higher? Just 20. We guess that’s progress.

It’s simply ridiculous to suggest that after years of schooling – countless tests, quizzes, essays, projects, class participation and more – it is impossible to recognize one student as the best of his or her class. Again, we’re guessing that the reason some districts don’t even try is that school officials don’t want to be subjected to a parade of parents demanding that their kids get that to which they are “entitled.”

Being a valedictorian, or being an honor-roll student, might still mean something, but it certainly means a lot less than it used to in some of our schools.



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