There will be no valedictory speech at Jericho High School’s graduation on Sunday. With seven seniors laying claim to the title by compiling A-plus averages, no one wanted to sit through a solid half-hour of inspirational quotations and sappy memories.
Instead, the seven will perform a 10-minute skit titled “2010: A Jericho Odyssey,” about their collective experience at this high-achieving Long Island high school, finishing up with 30 seconds each to say a few words to their classmates and families.
“When did we start saying that we should limit the honors so only one person gets the glory?” asked Joe Prisinzano, the Jericho principal.
In top suburban schools across the country, the valedictorian, a beloved tradition, is rapidly losing its singular meaning as administrators dispense the title to every straight-A student rather than try to choose the best among them.
Principals say that recognizing multiple valedictorians reduces pressure and competition among students, and is a more equitable way to honor achievement, particularly when No. 1 and No. 5 may be separated by only the smallest fraction of a grade from sophomore science. But some scholars and parents have criticized the swelling valedictorian ranks as yet another symptom of rampant grade inflation, with teachers reluctant to jeopardize the best and brightest’s chances of admission to top-tier colleges.
“It’s honor inflation,” said Chris Healy, an associate professor at Furman University, who said that celebrating so many students as the best could leave them ill prepared for competition in college and beyond. “I think it’s a bad idea if you’re No. 26 and you’re valedictorian. In the real world, you do get ranked.”
Not, though, at graduation from Stratford High School in the suburbs of Houston, which accorded its 30 valedictorians — about 6.5 percent of the class — gold honor cords. Nor at Cherry Hill High School East in southern New Jersey, which has revised its graduation tradition, picking a speaker among this year’s nine co-valedictorians by lottery and printing speeches from the others in the program.
In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, which the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, complained in an editorial “stretches the definition.” And north of New York City, Harrison High School is phasing out the title, and on Friday declared 13 of its 221 graduates “summa cum laude.”
William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, said he had heard of schools with more than 100 valedictorians, and had seen home-schooled students praised as No. 1 — out of one — all of which has helped render the distinction meaningless.
“I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism,” he said. “This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”
Even some principals who have named multiple valedictorians acknowledge that the honor no longer carries the same weight.
“If you’ve got one in a population of 500, it has special significance,” said John O’Breza, the principal of Cherry Hill East. “When you have 9, 10 or 30 in a population of 500, the numbers speak for themselves. The more rare it is, the more distinguished.”
Still, being tapped as valedictorian resonates deeply. “I feel like as long as you reach that point, it doesn’t matter how many you have,” said Yvette Leung, one of the Jericho seven, who is bound for Harvard. “To be named valedictorian is an honor and a testament to how hard we’ve tried.”
The word valedictorian — Latin for “farewell sayer”— appears as early as 1759 in the diary of the Rev. Edward Holyoke, then president of Harvard College. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the student usually having the highest rank in a graduating class who delivers the valedictory address at the commencement exercises.”
School officials contend that there are more valedictorians than ever before because the frenzy over college admissions has made students more serious about grades and has spurred them to load up on advanced courses beginning in freshman year. In addition, some schools have adjusted their formulas to give more students a shot at the top spot by counting more courses toward the grade-point average, or limiting the weight given to any one particular subject.
Don Haddad, the superintendent of the valedictorian-laden St. Vrain Valley district, where all 94 honored seniors earned a cumulative G.P.A. of at least 4.0, said his schools had simply produced stronger students with more rigorous coursework in early grades. “We have not lowered the bar to achieve more valedictorians,” he said. “More kids now are getting over the bar.”
Santa Monica High School in California recognized all 23 students with a 4.0 G.P.A. this year as “valedictorian candidates” and displayed their pictures at the entrance to the cafeteria. But for graduation, the school winnowed that pool to two valedictorians and one salutatorian by giving extra points for advanced placement, honors and college courses. As the principal put it, “If we had 23 speeches along with everything else, we’d still be graduating right now.”
Jericho selects its valedictorians through a formula that does not distinguish between honors and nonhonors courses, with the result that any student who earns all A-pluses all four years automatically receives the honor. The most valedictorians previously was four, in 2008; last year, there was one. Henry L. Grishman, the Jericho superintendent, said there were no plans to move to a weighted formula that could break, say, a seven-way tie for valedictorian because “it levels the playing field to say a course is a course is a course” and encourages students to focus on learning rather than competing. The district does not rank students.
This year’s co-valedictorians — all friends since middle school — are an illustrious group. Ms. Leung just returned from meeting President Obama as a presidential scholar. Brandon Li, who is headed to Yale, invented a water filtration system for third world countries. Four of the seven placed in international research competitions.
Mr. Prisinzano, the principal — himself valedictorian of his upstate New York high school in 1994 — said Jericho’s co-valedictorians had spent more than 20 hours developing and rehearsing their graduation skit over the past two weeks. There is no star: everyone has about the same amount of speaking time.
Jeremy Feinstein, who plans to study engineering at Cornell, said he was surprised to learn that he was one of seven valedictorians. “I’ve never even heard of more than one or two,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘They worked as hard as I did and they deserve it as much as I do.’ They’re all great people.”
Anyway, he added, “I wouldn’t know what to do with 10 minutes on the podium.”