Saturday, May 24, 2014

Last Among Equals

Let me be perfectly clear: I think we put on a good graduation. Let me also say that I think everyone's motives are good and this is certainly not the most pressing issue we face in education. Having stipulated that, I still think the following is worth spending some time thinking about.

We just graduated the Class of 2014. As most of you know, this was a difficult year at my school, but students, staff and the community came together, persevered, and finished strong, and graduation was a fitting culmination for that effort. You can even watch video of our graduation if you want, as our student broadcast club streamed it live.

But each year I get a little more bothered about one part of our graduation (this is twenty-third AHS graduation I've attended). Our graduation starts with the graduates coming in, some opening remarks from students and staff, an amazing performance by our choir and symphonic band (starts at 27:30 of the video), and a keynote speech by a student speaker (who, as usual, was great - starts at 50:30 of the video, note the selfie she took). Then we get to the part where we read the graduates' names and they receive their diplomas. This is the part that increasingly bothers me and, while it's not the most important issue in the world, I still wonder if we should revisit how we do this.

We start by asking all of the honors graduates to stand and be recognized collectively (no names are read yet, this is at 1:07 of the video). These are students with GPA's between 3.50 and 3.79. They then sit down and we recognize the High Honors graduates, those with GPA's of 3.80 and above.

The high honors graduates names are then read first, individually, by the Assistant Principal in charge of Curriculum, with their college choice (or occasionally some other destination) read after their name (at 1:08:10 of the video). We start with the Valedictorian and Salutatorian, then all the other high honors graduates are read in alphabetical order. They come up one by one and receive their diplomas and then return to their seats. (Before I go on it's important to note that all of these students - both honors and high honors - were recognized three days before graduation at our Awards Convocation).

Now all the rest of the students names get read (at 1:28:25 of the video). They are read by two faculty speakers, who alternate reading names one by one from each half of the alphabet so that it goes faster. These students have their names read, but no college choice or other destination, although the honors students get a "with honors" appended after their name.

We end with some closing remarks, the moving of the tassel, and then they exit. All in all, it's a wonderful ceremony. And yet . . .

I have very mixed feelings about the special recognition of the honors and high honors graduates. On the one hand, we are an academic institution, these students have worked hard, and it's nice to be able to recognize their achievement and hard work. I don't mean to discount that at all, I just wonder why we feel the need to raise their accomplishment above others on the day of graduation?

Part of my concern is over how honors and high honors are determined. They are based on grades, of course, with AP classes counting more. ((All of our classes except AP classes are worth 4, 3, 2, 1 for A, B, C, D, and AP classes are 5, 4, 3, 1, so we have a significant number of students above 4.0.) I've written frequently before about my concern with grades, so I won't dwell on this here, other than to say that I have serious doubts about how well grades reflect learning, and I also question the wisdom of determining both the honor and the additional recognition at graduation partially on whether a student decides to take AP classes or not.

While my concern with grades is certainly a part of my concern over this custom, the main focus of this post is not on the relative worth of grades. It's more about whether it's appropriate at graduation to elevate some students over others. (Again, keeping in mind that these students were all recognized three days before at a special awards convocation that was held just for them, their friends, and their families.) After all, part of our graduation ceremony (all 23 of them I've been at), is our Principal saying she certifies to the Superintendent that all of these students have met the graduation requirements of Arapahoe High School and Littleton Public Schools. And then the Superintendent states to the Board of Education that he certifies the same thing. So assuming we believe that our graduation requirements actually mean something, all of these students have met the requirements we have put before them. So then why do elevate some graduates over others?

There are some students who graduate from my high school that from the day they start as a freshman know they will not be an honors or high honors graduate. Now, before you accuse of me of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", I'm a firm believer that each student can achieve and has amazing potential. I'm also a strong believer in Dweck's concept of Growth Mindset. It's not that I don't think all students can learn, or that they can't be successful, or that they can't achieve, it's just that I think we as educators put a premium on a very small subset of what it means to be successful. Students that can't - or don't want to - fit into that narrow band of school-based, school-defined success are somehow deemed less worthy.

Everyone who has been an educator (or been around kids at all) knows of students who work incredibly hard, who learn and achieve and go on to do great things. They typically have a growth mindset, and they constantly challenge themselves to achieve their own goals. But often that doesn't translate into an A in school, which means they won't get special recognition at our graduation. Just because a student's GPA is 3.79 or below doesn't mean their achievement is worth less recognition, or that their future plans are any less worthy than the high honors graduates' plans.

If we believe that school is for all students, and we believe that what we offer and require of all of our students is meaningful, and that students that meet those requirements have accomplished something, then when and how they receive that diploma shouldn't be differentiated by their cumulative GPA. We should celebrate all of our graduates, and not be silent about their plans for next year simply because they didn't reach an arbitrary number on a dubious scale. They shouldn't be last among equals.


  1. We are ditching honours announcement at our grad this year, too, along with French Immersion recognition (so I have a dog in this fight). I'm with you on the mixed feelings bit - I get that students that try their best won't all be at the top of the scale, but at the same time, recognizing nobody seems to be along the lines of Harrison Bergeron.

    1. Yeah. I guess I feel they do get recognized - they get an Awards Convocation three days before. It seems like graduation is a time to recognize everyone.

  2. I agree with some of your points here, Karl. At my school, AP course grades are not weighted differently. I'm curious to know...would you feel as strongly about this topic if all courses were weighted equally?

    1. Matt - I still would, although I think weighted AP grades makes it worse. I didn't want the weight of grades to be the focus of this post, but that's part of the argument about the arbitrariness and dubiousness of grades in general and then GPA in particular. I've never heard anyone at my school (or really anywhere) have a serious discussion justifying why an A is worth 4, a B 3, etc., which of course is just compounded with weighted honors or AP grades.

      As you can imagine, I think it would be an interesting mathematical discussion to have with most educators. Why is an A worth 133% of a B and 200% of a C, but a B is worth 150% of a C and 300% of a D? And then why is an 'AP' A worth "only" 125% of an 'AP' B and 166% of an 'AP' C? Or why is an 'AP' A worth 125% of a 'regular' A, but an 'AP' B is worth 133% of a 'regular' B, and an 'AP' C worth 150% of a 'regular' C (and, of course an 'AP' D and a 'regular' D are somehow equivalent?).

      When you then throw in the mathematical problems around the individual grade itself (the disproportionate effect that a 0 has on a grade, the lack of inter-grader reliability, the differences in grading systems between teachers, teachers that weight grades vs. total points, "good kid" points vs. "standards-based" points, extra credit, etc. etc. etc.), then I'd suggest there is very little - if any - justification for the way we do this.

      As I tried to say in the post, though, even if we did think our grading system was an accurate and fair way to measure, I still would be against it based on my arguments in the last four paragraphs.

  3. Good topic to raise. I read somewhere recently that it was pretty silly to have a graduation for something you are required to do. As in, "Congrats students, you just did exactly what the law requires you to do, so let's have a huge ceremony celebrating that." So, awarding or recognizing those who went above and beyond the minimum requirements at least makes a little sense relating to that argument.

    If you read everyone's destination after graduation, I am sure you would get some pushback from others saying that by recognizing everyone's achievement, you are making those who choose a less traditional route feel badly for not choosing something more "acceptable" after graduation.

    What I think is really the problem here, Karl, is that we are so afraid of making someone feel bad that we don't recognize the great things people are doing. I have heard actual discussions about some educator's skill set where the discussion went something like this, "If we highlight how well Teacher X is doing, Teacher Y will feel bad and won't perform as well." I am not making that up.

    I am all about highlighting the positive and noticing peoples' strengths, but if shy away from recognizing those, we are probably doing something wrong.

    We focus on the things we really care about. If we really care about high academic standards, then that is what should get our attention at graduation. If we care about sheltering and protecting kids from realizing that they have different strengths than grades, then we shouldn't make a big deal about high grades at all.

    I would also say that well-behaved kids with good grades miss out on a lot of attention already. We focus our energies on the low-performing (academically and behaviorally) students quite a bit as it is.

    In this situation, the attention on them seems justified and OK. before long, we may be sending the message that working hard and pushing yourself is so undervalued that kids may not want to do it at all. Are we already at that point?

  4. Our students who have remained on the Honour Roll throughout high school receive a gold cord that is worn over their gown at graduation as a special distinction. Students cross the stage in alpha order: the student's name is read out along with any awards or scholarships they are receiving and this is followed by a phrase the student has chosen. It could be an inspirational quotation or words of thanks to teachers/parents or even something like 'Shane is wearing this year's stylish flip flops', etc. Their counsellor hands them their diploma and the principal moves their tassel over before they get photographed on stage holding their diploma alongside the principal.

    The top graduates are also recognized at a scholars banquet and others receive various awards at the annual Gr 9-12 Awards Ceremony.

    I am always impressed at the applause for each graduate and especially the burst of cheers and applause from everyone for the 'outstanding' students, be they top achievers, physically or mentally challenged, strugglers or athletes. Each of them stands out for their personal achievement and to see ALL their peers acknowledge that is always very emotional for me.