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New Canaan's disappearing valedictorian

Published 4:16 pm, Thursday, August 1, 2013
  • New Canaan ( Conn. ) High School graduation commencement ceremony on Friday June 21, 2013. Photo: Dru Nadler / Stamford Advocate Freelance
    New Canaan ( Conn. ) High School graduation commencement ceremony on Friday June 21, 2013. Photo: Dru Nadler

 

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When the 2013 class of New Canaan High School graduated in June, a traditional collection of people spoke: the principal, a faculty member, the first selectman, the superintendent and five students. The only one who didn't speak was the valedictorian.

That's because New Canaan High School doesn't have a valedictorian. Nor does it rank its students by grade-point average, and hasn't for roughly the last 15 years, the administration estimates.

"It really stems from a belief that it shouldn't be a competition, that each student's education is important and they should be taking classes they're interested in, not worrying about, `where will this put me in relation to the person sitting next to me,' " Larry Sullivan, assistant principal at New Canaan High School, said.

Such a stance toward class rank and the naming of a valedictorian appear to be on the rise around the country. At Trinity College in Hartford, only about a quarter of the incoming freshman class included class rank on their applications. According to Larry Dow, the dean of admissions, his department has seen a noticeable decline in class rank, which started about 15 years ago.

"We've seemed to have moved beyond that idea," Superintendent Mary Kolek said. "We individually show students and individually show our school and we want schools to make sure to describe the student as much more than a number or position."

Part of the reason for that is that NCHS is already competitive. Those students who would be at the top need not feel more pressured, especially over what may be hundredths of a point differences, Board of Education Chairman Alison Bedula said.

"I'm not sure what that accomplishes," Bedula explained. "Kids are separated by such miniscule amounts, I don't know what it means really. It's like everything else: things evolve and change.

According to the 2012 State of College Admission report, issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, colleges are paying less and less attention to class rank as fewer and fewer high schools report it.

In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance; in 2011, only 19 percent, according to the report.

Admissions offices are putting less weight on class rank in part because fewer high schools are reporting it, according to Nathan Fuerst, director of admissions at the University of Connecticut. He said about 51 percent of applications included class rank last year.

"As it's become less common., we use it less," he said. "If you would've asked that question five, 10 years ago, it would've been something we weight more heavily. For the lack of rank, we've moved more toward using GPA. Even with using GPA, the number of factors we look at is more holistic."

At Trinity, Dow had a similar response, saying his admissions department assesses students right down to their performances in individual classes.

"For colleges such as Trinity that are somewhat selective and have the luxury of reading the entire portfolio, you're really not able to say any one of the items in the folder is going to carry immense weight," he said. "You're going to look at the individual courses and the success in the courses."

College applications aside, some residents think the high school should rank the students as a matter of principle.

"Education is a very serious thing, and if a student achieves something, it should be recorded," Bala Nair, whose three children graduated from NCHS, said. He noted that he could still go back to the secondary school from which he graduated in 1965, in the Kerala province of southern India, and find his rank. "Fifty years from now you could come back and say, `Your grandfather was valedictorian,' or `Your grandfather was a dummy.'"

But class rank could also engender too much competition among students, as Sullivan said. A byproduct of that could be too much pressure, which could lead to destructive decisions for some teens, said Aaron Krasner, the director and unit chief of the adolescent transitional living program at Silver Hill Hospital and an instructor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. He referenced the work of early 20th-century psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who proposed a proximal zone of development. Within the zone, people developed ideally, and outside of it, not so well. Krasner noted the same could be said of pressure on students.

"It is clear in the literature that if parental and teacher expectations are low, then student outcomes tend to be lower," he said.

But he also said there's an upper boundary for pressure in the proximal zone of learning as well. "For some people, having class rank may put them into the proximal zone by having competitive setup, but for another kid, it might shoot them out of the zone, shut them down and lead them to maladaptive coping skills."

Students contacted for this article, even those who won awards at graduation, did not seem to have issue with the lack of ranking or the title of valedictorian.

"There is an aspect of competition among students over grades," Jesse Bird, a 2013 graduate, said. "It's always a lot of fun. Some people can take it very seriously, and others not so much. I think (having class rank) may raise level of competitiveness among peers, but I don't think it would raise it too much above where it is now."

Olivia Hompe will be heading to Princeton University in the fall. She said having rank could've changed the atmosphere at school.

"I think it's probably better that we don't. There are so many talented kids at our school, I think it might be something that's divisive within the class. I think class rank is also hard because certain people take certain classes and so I think that it could also be somewhat misrepresentative," she said.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @Woods_NCNews