Seniors at Kent County High School are biting nails over this holiday weekend. Bright and early tomorrow, county school officials will calculate final grades to determine a valedictorian for the Class of '96, graduating Saturday.
Across the Bay Bridge, there is no such nervousness at Howard High School in Ellicott City. The school's nine students who have had straight A's for four years will be honored equally at commencement Wednesday night, along with eight other graduates in the top 5 percent of the class.
No one will know who's No. 1, and eight of the nine like it that way. So do the school's principal and senior class guidance counselor.
As Maryland enters another graduation season, educators and students disagree about singling out the academic "best."
Unseemly competition among students grasping for the valedictorian ring, and grade inflation that can result in more than a dozen straight-A students in a single class, have prompted some schools and districts to stop honoring a single academic star each spring.
"We gain a good deal by recognizing all of these top students instead of just one of them," said Mary Day, the Howard High principal, who supports a long-standing policy in the county discouraging valedictorians and salutatorians.
"All of these kids are gifted and well-rounded. Most of them are in competition with themselves to succeed, and that's the way it should be."
But in rural Kent County, Barbara M. Kergaard, supervisor of guidance, said: "We're very traditional. The race for valedictorian always comes down to the last few days, and the students seem to relish it. It keeps the seniors working to the end, and it prevents senioritis."
The state's most selective high schools, public and private, are the least likely to name a valedictorian. Many of the schools in the Maryland Association of Independent Schools (AIMS) decline rank students -- at least in public ceremony. Among them are the progressive Park School in Baltimore, whose founder said 84 years ago that the perfect school would feature "no rewards and no penalties," and Key School in Annapolis.
Privately, however, many of these schools do rank students to help their seniors gain admission to college, according to Norwood Johnston, director of college counseling at the Severn School in Severna Park.
Pikesville High School is the only public school in Baltimore County that doesn't honor a top student (or students) at graduation, but a guidance counselor said Friday that students are informed of their rank in class.
The growing number of straight-A students has caused some schools to weight students' grades by the difficulty of the courses taken. But David Booz, principal of South Carroll High School in Sykesville, does no such thing. At South Carroll, every student with perfect grades is valedictorian.
"This year it looks like we'll have 15 valedictorians," Booz said. "If we have 15 valedictorians, so be it. It's still an accomplishment. We just won't have 15 long speeches," Booz said, laughing, in a reference to the strict definition of "valedictorian" as the graduation speaker.
"Weighting grades is what gets you in the Dumpster," said Eugene Streagle, Howard County's director of high schools and former Howard High principal. "How do you decide between an advanced placement English class and advanced placement physics? What about the other things that go into a high school career that should perhaps be counted? The decisions sometimes come down to a matter of hundredths of a point."
Just such a dispute at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County tTC three years ago led to a change in Baltimore County's method of calculating grade-point average. Two senior girls, one the daughter of Baltimore lawyer and sports commentator Stan White, battled for the top spot in their class by taking summer courses after their junior year.
White filed suit in behalf of his daughter, who he said had earned more "quality points" than her rival. (He later dropped the lawsuit.)
County schools still weight grades, said spokesman Donald I. Mohler III, but beginning with this year's junior class, students no longer will benefit from taking extra courses. "So if you've taken the most demanding academic program and never earned anything lower than an 'A,' the worst that could happen is you'd be tied for first," Mohler said.
Oliver Wittig, principal of Glen Burnie High School in Anne Arundel County, said he designates a valedictorian -- or more than one -- by using both weighted and unweighted grades. "But I'm not going to split hairs between a 3.98 and 3.99 [average]. They can both be valedictorians."
It is hair-splitting and competitive agony that the no-valedictorian policy eliminates, said most of Howard High's top seniors interviewed at the school last week.
The policy encourages students to take courses for enjoyment, they said.