Where everyone is No. 1


A growing number of high school principals and school superintendents around the nation have abandoned class ranking, to the dismay of college admissions departments. It is the Lake Wobegon principle at work, where all of the children are above average and none need compete.

The Washington Post recently recapped a nationwide trend, reporting that at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Va., this year there were 117 valedictorians, and at Long Beach Polytechnic in Long Beach, Calif., there were 30. At a number of schools, including North Hills High School near Pittsburgh, Pa., there were none. North Hills superintendent Patrick Mannarino told the Post, “Education’s not a game. ... That high school diploma declares you all winners.”

Schools differ. Washington and Lee High, with a reputation as a demanding school, gave the “valedictorian” award to all students who finished with a grade point average above 4.0 (gained by taking advanced placement courses) because it was hard to discern a single top student. This year those students represented a remarkable 26 percent of the graduating class. At Long Beach the local branch of the University of California provides an incentive by offering full scholarships to valedictorians of any high school.

But the trend is broad, and college admissions officers have taken note. Referring to a Midwestern high school’s report that every student finished in the top half, Jim Bock, dean of admissions at Swathmore, said, “It’s sort of like the Lake Wobegon effect, where everybody is above average, where everyone is No. 1. When you have what I think is an artificial ranking, is that really meaningful? I would say for selective admissions, that’s not doing them a service.”

Perhaps the trend is not surprising. Principals are increasingly chosen from the post-Boomer generation, raised with an anti-competitive bias and nurtured on the self-esteem movement. Now they are leading a new generation down the same path.