Back in the day, class valedictorian was the standout scholar of the senior class, the acknowledged brain. This year's 406-member graduating...

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Back in the day, class valedictorian was the standout scholar of the senior class, the acknowledged brain.

This year’s 406-member graduating class at Garfield High School features 44 valedictorians. Forty-four students with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages who, over seven semesters of mostly honors and Advanced Placement classes, have never earned less than an A.

Even for a school with a reputation as an academic powerhouse, it’s a record number: Last year Garfield had 30 valedictorians; the year before, 27.

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Skeptics say that so many students with perfect 4.0 GPAs is evidence of grade inflation; admirers say it’s the product of smart, hard-working students at a school that encourages academic success.

Either way, the multiple valedictorians at Garfield are reflective of a national trend of rewarding a number of high-achieving students at graduation rather than singling out one.

And nationally, Garfield may be just mid-range. Bullard High School in Fresno, Calif., is graduating 58 valedictorians this year.

“I don’t think we’re giving away the grades,” said Carolyn Barge, Garfield’s senior counselor. “These kids are taking every AP and honors class they can get their hands on. They take six classes every semester. They’re just amazing kids.”

Traditionally the highest-performing student, the valedictorian gives the final address at graduation. But the increasing number of straight-A students has led some schools to abandon the award altogether.

At Bellevue High School, seven graduating seniors earned straight A’s, but the school decided this year not to name valedictorians. Instead, each will be given a medal, said Principal Mike Bacigalupi.

Auburn High School had nine 4.0 students but will honor a range of accomplishments at graduation and also will not name any valedictorians, said Terri Herren, assistant principal.

Garfield administrators are thrilled at the high number of outstanding students. Their only question was whether to allow all 44 to speak. A plan to have the valedictorians elect two speakers was shot down after Principal Ted Howard talked with class officers and other seniors. The consensus, Howard said, was that the school’s smartest kids should have their moment in the spotlight.

At graduation ceremonies Monday at Qwest Field, 35 of the valedictorians will give a brief, inspirational quote. The other nine opted not to speak.

The large cohort of high-achieving students at Garfield can be traced, in part, to the Seattle School District’s Accelerated Progress Program. A number of the top students have attended advanced classes together since first grade.

But the Garfield valedictorians aren’t just the brains. They are class officers, stars of the school plays, musicians, athletes and political activists. And the list of colleges to which they’re headed reads like a university who’s who: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth and the University of California, Berkeley. Nine will attend Stanford in the fall.

No question these are accomplished students. But isn’t “valedictorian” supposed to be reserved for the one, smartest kid? Can there really be 44 who are the best? Some of the biggest critics of the multiple valedictorians are the senior achievers themselves.

“It’s definitely a sign of egregious grade inflation,” said Nathan Pflueger, one of Garfield’s 4.0 seniors. Pflueger made the national Math Olympiad team as a sophomore, plays clarinet in the orchestra and swims the 200-yard freestyle for the Bulldogs swim team. He said even some advanced classes at the school don’t challenge the very brightest students.

Sophie Egan, senior-class president, captain of the girls track team and another valedictorian, points out that Garfield doesn’t have a weighted grading system, as do many districts outside Seattle. Some schools give more weight to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. Others use decimal grades such as 3.9 or 3.6 to distinguish between an A+ and a mere A. At Garfield, an A+ and an A- count equally as a 4.0.

“There should be more standards to separate kids,” Egan said.

Grade inflation may be a factor in the rising number of valedictorians around the country. A report by the College Board, which administers the SAT and high school Advanced Placement courses, showed that the average GPA of college-bound seniors in 1994 was 3.15. Ten years later, it had risen to 3.28.

But some national grading experts say that multiple valedictorians reflect a shift toward evaluating students based on mastery of course content, not in comparison to each other, as in the traditional bell curve.

Thomas Guskey, a University of Kentucky education professor, said that in schools that use decimal grading, the GPAs of top students may differ by only a hundredth of a percentage point. And he said that parents unhappy with such hair-splitting have taken their complaints to court.

“After special education, the biggest number of school court cases is around the selection of valedictorians,” he said.

Amy Hagopian, Garfield’s PTSA co-president and mother of one of the valedictorians, Kolya Ludwig, was one of the advocates of allowing all 44 top students to speak at graduation.

“Picking two would be hard,” said Hagopian, who surveyed parents about speakers. “The majority wanted to keep the tradition of everybody speaking briefly.”

But, she pointed out, this year’s valedictorians don’t reflect the school’s full diversity. Only one African-American student earned the top honor, although blacks make up 22 percent of the student body.

“It’s pretty much a parade of white and Asian faces,” said Hagopian. “That’s one of our dilemmas at Garfield.”

Part of Garfield’s mission under first-year principal Howard is to raise the academic achievement of a broader spectrum of students. Howard said he isn’t satisfied with 44 valedictorians.

“I want more,” he said. “I want high achievement to be infectious. I want every student here to realize the opportunities that could be waiting for them when they walk out these doors.”

Howard may get his wish. Among Garfield’s freshman class, 129 currently have perfect 4.0s.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Multiple valedictorians increasingly common
The following is a sample of local high schools, their number of valedictorians and the number of students in the Class of 2005.
School Valedictorians Class Size
Garfield 44 406
Ballard 6 375
Franklin 6 349
Roosevelt 5 400
Mercer Island 2 340
Inglemoor (Kenmore) 26 563
Edmonds-Woodway 1 340
Henry M. Jackson (Mill Creek) 8 310
Kamiak (Mukilteo) 1 500
Source: High school counseling offices

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