By awarding academic honors, Sidwell would distinguish students during the college admissions process, some argue. Photo: Sidwell Friends.
By awarding academic honors, Sidwell would distinguish students during the college admissions process, some argue. Photo: Sidwell Friends.

Pro: Should Sidwell Have a Valedictorian and Academic Awards?

Recently, some schools have removed the valedictorian title and other academic awards, a nationwide trend. These awards are a long-standing tradition in many schools that seek to celebrate and recognize excellence in the classroom. Sidwell, however, does not have academic awards, which stands as an adherence to Quaker values. As college admissions become more competitive, however, Sidwell students need ways to separate themselves from the majority of applicants. Although honoring one student over another would break Quaker tradition, implementing a valedictorian system would motivate students and recognize academic achievement without taking away from the equity in the Sidwell Friends community.

Sidwell students seem to be constantly preparing for the college admissions process. Many take the hardest classes they can and fill their schedules with and pursue a variety of extracurriculars to best appeal to colleges. Some students may even choose to pursue academic awards and recognition outside of Sidwell to strengthen their applications. Still, an additional title could be the factor needed to make students stand out in the admissions process. A valedictorian would accomplish just that. According to a survey by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, 13% of colleges interviewed said that they consider class rank an important factor in admissions. Although this number is down from 1993’s 42%, any factor that can make a student stand out matters, especially at Sidwell, where helping students go to their top-choice college is a priority. As colleges grow more competitive, Sidwell students deserve the recognition of a valedictorian title and academic awards.

Moreover, evidence suggests that the valedictorian system especially empowers women in a male-dominated world. According to the College Board, 70% of valedictorians are women, making the position an important mark of achievement for women in particular, whose effort often goes unrecognized. Sidwell’s reasoning for a lack of academic awards is primarily based on equity concerns, but studies clearly show that the valedictorian title actually promotes equity by recognizing and empowering women.

Finally, granting academic awards and selecting a valedictorian would further motivate students to become the best versions of themselves. It would not only encourage students to take harder classes, but also to excel in them. The additional motivation of striving for academic recognition would help students challenge and push themselves. Students would be competing with their peers for these awards, but they would also be competing with themselves in the search to achieve their full potential. Just as athletes are always trying to get better at their sports in hope of becoming the best, students should be just as motivated in their classwork.

The importance of maintaining equity in our community and avoiding a toxic and competitive classroom environment cannot be understated. However, Sidwell should find a way to embrace our high-achieving students and their commitment to distinguishing themselves in the classroom. A valediction would serve just this purpose: motivating and celebrating students while accommodating our Quaker focus.

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Con: Should Sidwell Have a Valedictorian and Academic Awards?

Becoming valedictorian has long been a marker of excellence and prestige, but in recent years, both academic awards and the valedictorian title have become obsolete in high schools. Schools across the nation have either completely removed or limited their academic awards and titles, according to Newsweek. Additionally, the schools that grant academic awards have begun giving them to larger portions of their graduating classes, defeating their initial purpose of distinction. These awards and titles, which attempt to distinguish high-ranking students, serve no beneficial purpose to Sidwell or its students because of their outdated nature, their contradiction to the Quaker values and the detrimental sacrifices that students must make to earn them.

As high schools adapt to changing societal standards, the ranking system has outgrown its traditional role of distinguishing high-ranking students from their peers, and their archaic nature has grown increasingly prominent in contrast with modern educational practices. Unlike the tradition of selecting one student per class, schools that still have valedictorians use a process that is overly inclusive. Now, many schools have several valedictorians. In 2014, the senior class of Dublin Jerome High School in Ohio graduated with 72 valedictorians, according to The Washington Post. The multitude of valedictorians in graduating classes strips the great prestige that comes with the title and the whole purpose of the award. The same issue would occur at Sidwell, because Sidwell has many students who would no doubt achieve the title of valedictorian or a similar academic award. Sidwell’s values and culture of equity would likely lead to the prestige of the award being lost to the presumably large number of valedictorians for each graduating class. Sidwell rightfully embraces the core value of equity by deciding that no student should be honored over another.

While academic challenges are beneficial for a student’s growth and experience, the lengths to which many students must go in their search for the valedictorian title or an academic award may be detrimental to students’ physical and mental health. According to The Prindle Institute for Ethics, many students who aim to be valedictorian and earn an academic award sacrifice their personal and social lives, along with their mental well-being. Students should aim to lead balanced lives that include challenging themselves academically while also enjoying their high school years with their friends and communities. The stress and competition of trying to obtain these academic awards in addition to an already rigorous academic schedule will only put more strain on students’ mental health. In Sidwell’s case, the benefits of being a valedictorian are outweighed by damaged mental health and a loss of the high school experience, which must be sacrificed to achieve academic awards.

The Sidwell community values and celebrates individual achievement, but at the same time must remain aligned with Quaker values and beliefs. By having academic awards and a class valedictorian, Sidwell would be honoring particular students over the rest, which would fail to  abide by one of its core tenets — equity — and also create additional stress and unnecessary competition among students.

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