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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools will eliminate valedictorian system, class ranking to ‘dampen’ academic arms race

Clara Coyote, a senior at Ferris is in support of Spokane Public Schools changing the class ranking system. The new plan will replace the valedictorian system. Instead, students will be ranked as in college with the Latin Honors system. Summa cum laude, Magna cum laude and cum laude. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Within the next five years, Spokane Public Schools will eliminate the valedictorian system as well as class rankings for high school students.

Instead, students will be ranked in deciles – the top 10 percent, top 20 percent, and so on – and the district will implement the Latin Honors system to recognize top graduates.

The changes come after feedback from students, parents and teachers indicated the current system was causing an academic arms race, said Steven Gering, chief academic officer for Spokane Public Schools.

Clara Coyote, a senior at Ferris High School and a student representative to the school board, said she is a part of that arms race.

Coyote knows students who didn’t take music classes because they worried it would affect their GPA. And she said she’s always considering her class rank – she’s currently No. 3. Her friend, fellow Ferris senior Lily Coleman, said she’s seen Coyote stress over an A-.

“My friends will jokingly call me No. 3,” Coyote said, adding that falling in the ranking is “people’s worst nightmare.”

Although Coyote always hoped to be a valedictorian, she thinks the coming changes emphasize that high GPAs aren’t the only mark of success in high school.

“Rigor makes sense,” Gering said. “We should be recognizing kids who take honors and AP classes. But there is a little too much emphasis on taking more.”

Gering has heard stories about students worrying that taking music classes, for instance, would put them at a competitive disadvantage because the classes don’t deliver the same grade-point punch that, say, an honors class delivers.

Additionally, he said teachers were starting to push for their classes to be labeled honors courses to encourage enrollment.

In September 2015 the district implemented a weighted grade system. Here’s how it works: an A in a regular course earns a student 4 points on the GPA scale. In an honors class, an A is worth 4.5 points; and in an advanced placement class, an A earns 5 points.

The weighted grade system won’t change, Gering said. However, its impact will be “dampened” by the new system.

“Colleges are very clear,” Gering said. “They want students to have a rigorous schedule and to make good decisions in terms of pushing themselves in high school.”

The details of how that is achieved can vary. Most top colleges, Gering said, don’t care about class rank, or valedictorian status. Instead they want to see students in the top 10 percent of their class with diverse and challenging academic and extracurricular schedules.

The exact GPA breakdown of each decile’s cutoff range will change depending on each senior class. Additionally, the minimum grade point necessary for each Latin honor designation has yet to be determined.

“They won’t have to worry so much about what their classmate down the hall is doing,” Gering said of the new system.

Although there won’t be valedictorians anymore, Gering said the class speaker tradition will continue. How high schools pick a class speaker depends on the high school.

The school board was presented with the change at the Wednesday, Jan. 25 board meeting. The policies will be implemented within the next month.

At that meeting board members supported the direction staff were going, although they did raise some concerns.

Board member Sue Chapin noted some students will miss the top 10 percent cutoff by just a point or two.

“There is always going to be some kid who missed it by one, and that’s a hard place to be,” she said at the board meeting.

Outgoing board member Bob Douthitt said he was OK with the new ranking system, but worries that it could water down student achievements.

“I’m afraid you’re going to find out five or six years down the road, ‘Oh shoot, everyone is Summa Cum Laude,’ ” he said.

Board President Deana Brower supported the changes, although she did wonder if it was pretentious to have Latin designations.