Students in Winchester public schools will no longer be vying for the honor of valedictorian, as Handley High School will transition to a more rigorous ranking system.
The school board voted Monday to eliminate the positions of valedictorian and salutatorian, instead opting for a ranking system of “summa cum laude,” “magna cum laude,” and “cum laude.”
In terms of a student’s grade point average, “summa cum laude” translates to a GPA of at least 4.0, “magna cum laude” denotes a GPA of between 3.74 and 3.99, while ‘”cum laude” is for any student between 3.5 and 3.74.
This raises the bar from the current standings, where students with a GPA of 3.75 or higher are given “highest honors”, students with a 3.5 to 3.74 GPA are given honors, and anyone with a GPA between a 3.0 and a 3.49 is given “recognition.”
Superintendent of schools Jason Van Heukelum says the change comes as the Commonwealth as a whole transitions to a new idea of what student achievement should look like, known as the Virginia “Profile of a Graduate.”
While some community members feel that eliminating the title of valedictorian takes away from the achievements of hard working students, Van Heukelum says the system actually benefits students who are truly excelling academically.
“Our current practice had recognition for academics in three different bands. Quite frankly they were pretty low bars,” he said, adding that students with C’s and D’s were winding up on the honors rankings. “It ended up recognizing more than half of the senior class every single year… Really, everyone got a trophy.”
While analyzing the grade point average data, Van Heukelum says administrators noticed another concerning trend.
“At the end of the day, GPA calculation comes down to whether you make A’s and how many honors of AP classes you take,” he said. “What we found was that students were making decisions on course selection based on thousandths of a GPA point” as opposed to choosing classes they were passionate about.
Van Heukelum hopes the new system will let top students expand beyond just AP and Honors courses to follow their interests in the arts, computer sciences, or career technical classes, that might normally bring down their GPA.
Van Heukelum hears the concerns of community members and stresses that the system will challenge students more than the current policy.
“It seems like we may be lowering standards by discontinuing the val/sal, but in fact we’re actually raising that rigor for our community and our kids, and at the same time giving our students freedom and flexibility in allowing them to pursue their passions,” he said. “I’ve heard ‘Oh you’re just giving participation trophies to everyone.’ That was our past practice. Now we’re raising that rigor and making it something to be proud of.”
The “cum laude” system won’t be affecting the Handley class of 2019. The system will transition into place over the next several years, and the first class to graduate with “cum laude” distinctions will be the class of 2022.