The year of 2019 will be the last time that any student at Ohio’s highly-acclaimed William Mason High School receives a valedictorian honor.
The school announced on May 9 that it is eliminating the honor title over concerns of unhealthy competition and to protect student mental wellbeing.
A three-tiered Latin honors system, with summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude—similar to college rankings—will soon be used in place of the former distinction, according to the announcement.
“The recognition system will reward our students for genuine academic success based on their academic accomplishments. This will help reduce the overall competitive culture at MHS to allow students to focus on exploring learning opportunities that are of interest to them,” principal of Mason High School (MHS), Bobby Dodd, said in the announcement.
Dodd also said that the change will allow the school to distinguish “students who have achieved outstanding academic success through a multitude of pathways.”
The decision has drawn criticism from Baker Mayfield, the star quarterback from the National Football League.
“You’re telling me competition doesn’t bring out the best in people? If you want something bad enough, work for it,” Mayfield said.
“People are too soft,” he added.
This is so dumb. You’re telling me competition doesn’t bring out the best in people? If you want something bad enough, work for it. People are too soft. https://t.co/fKUSJhFUF5
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) May 11, 2019
But the school’s superintendent, Jonathan Cooper, defended the school’s decision in an interview with Fox News, citing the “unhealthy patterns” and a rise in suicide rates. According to the Population Reference Bureau, teen suicides have increased from 8 deaths per 100,000 in 1999 to 8.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2014 and suicide has now overtaken homicides as the second leading cause of teen deaths in the United States.
According to a recent survey of high school students by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (pdf), around a third of high school students experienced persistent depressive feelings in 2017, while 17.2 percent seriously considered committing suicide and 7.4 percent attempted suicide at least once. However, the survey did not identify the cause of the reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness among high school students.
The decline in student mental health has prompted at least 39 Ohio middle and high schools, including Mason High School, to act.
“They just don’t understand what’s going on inside our community,” Cooper said to the criticism, adding that Mason High School has also introduced a peer-to-peer program called Hope Squad to look after students in need.
According to Cooper, competition is intense for students wanting to get ahead in academic performance at Mason High School: 40 percent of the 2019 class will be graduating with a GPA of 4.0 or higher.
“We want our kids to pursue what they’re passionate about,” he said. “We don’t want them to chase a magic number or this artificial goal here. We want them to pursue what they’re interested in.”
The school said that the honor title is based on students’ weighted GPA, and that student rankings are not reported to colleges.
“The paradoxical nature of class rank within the culture of MHS does nothing to decrease the competition among students,” Dodd said of the system.
In speaking with WKRC-TV, Dodd added that in his view, competition for high scores had led students to overload themselves with classes.
“These past couple of years, we’ve seen a trend where students are not taking the classes because they want to learn more about a subject, they’re taking the classes because of a weighted GPA they can receive,” he said.
Mason High School will become one of the latest Ohio high schools to switch to Latin honors system, following schools such as Indian Hill High School and Hilliard Darby High School.
The valedictorian honor is an age-old tradition that has roots in colonial times. The term valedictorian derives from the Latin phrase, “vale dicere,” meaning “to say goodbye.” The valedictorian scholar usually gives a commencement speech at the end of the graduation ceremony.
Ranking from top down based on grade point averages has become less popular in recent years. Up to half of the schools in the country no longer report class ranks, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“It is really creating a better climate, a better health for our students,” Dodd said.