Highest-honor students no longer on a pedestal at Guilderland graduation

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

At the 2018 graduation ceremony, then-principal Thomas Lutsic, who retired with the graduates, applauds the 72 highest-honors students seated onstage. ​

GUILDERLAND — On the recommendation of the high school’s building cabinet, the administration plans to make a change to the current seating arrangement at graduation, Principal Michael Piscitelli told the school board on May 7.

Rather than having highest-honor graduates sitting on the stage, next year they will join their classmates seated on folding chairs on the floor of the athletic arena at the University at Albany. Families, friends, and supporters will, as always, be seated in bleachers lining the walls of the arena.

For the upcoming June graduation, students with a grade-point average of 95 or above will choose whether to sit on the stage or on the floor.

The driving force for the change was school board member Benjamin Goes, who graduated from Guilderland in 2014. Goes explains his reasons for the push in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.

The stage-sitting recognition began with the 1995 graduation ceremony. In 1994-95, the system of selecting a valedictorian and salutatorian was done away with, and the tradition of ranking students as honors (85 or above), high honors (90 and above), and highest honors (95 and above) was established in its place.

In 1995, there were just 18 students, or 6 percent of the graduating class, sitting on the stage. At last year’s graduation, 72 students, or 19 percent of the class, sat onstage.

For this year’s graduation ceremony, school officials project 52 students, or 14 percent of the class, will be eligible to sit on the stage.

Lake Wobegon effect

The percentage of highest-honors students is two or three times higher now than it was a quarter-century ago. A former Guilderland curriculum director, Nancy Andress, referred to this as the Lake Wobegon effect, a reference to Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town “where all the children are above average.”

School board member Barbara Fraterrigo asked Piscitelli whether he was concerned about the increase in the numbers of highest-honors students. Piscitelli replied, “That is a very different presentation.”

Piscitelli also said, “It’s very transparent that the numbers are very different over time, and I don’t have a great explanation of why that is.”

Board President Christine Hayes remarked to Piscitelli and the board that the increasing number of students being given grades in the high 90s seemed like the bigger issue.

Grade inflation at Guilderland has been increasing for more than half a century. In 1959, about 5 percent of Guilderland graduates were “A” students, with grades of 90 or above, and close to 60 percent were “C” students. By 1994, only about 25 percent were “C” students, and more than 25 percent were “A” students.

The number of “C” students, which used to be considered average, is now very small, and the “A” students have become the norm. Forty-seven percent of Guilderland high-school students now have averages of 90 or above.

Piscitelli said this week that so much has changed over the past 25 years that he is not sure that the change in the number of students receiving As can rightly be labeled as grade inflation. “In something as complicated as this, we’ve got to be careful about making false assumptions about why that has changed,” he said.

In the last quarter-century, Piscitelli said, community expectations have shifted and so have student expectations; there is now a presumption, he said, that they will go on to postsecondary education, and that they will need to compete with others from beyond Guilderland to do that.

He also said that if, for instance, a teacher gives students the opportunity to improve a grade by correcting or retaking a test, he believes that that is a good instructional practice that helps students to improve their knowledge of material.

Piscitelli said that high school officials are currently exploring different assessment strategies.

The year that Guilderland stopped recognizing a valedictorian and salutatorian, The Enterprise discussed grading with local teachers and found varying practices:

— Some graded a student on his individual progress (so that by trying hard and succeeding he might earn a higher grade than a classmate who had done better but made less progress);

— Others graded by comparing a student’s performance to classmates’ so that grades followed a bell curve; and

— Still others graded against a set of predetermined standards, meaning it would be possible for no one to earn an “A,” or for everyone to earn an “A.”

In 2018, the school board voted to eliminate class rank, as proposed by some students. The number of students who are ranked as honors, high honors, or highest honors means that the grade-point average and the honors designation sound better than does the ranking.

A student at Guilderland, for instance, could be an honors student with a GPA of 90.05, but be ranked 182 out of 419. The relatively low rank might mean immediate disqualification from consideration for some colleges, students argued. Until 2018, rank had been included on students’ transcripts.

Cabinet reaches consensus

Guilderland High School senior Sonal Swain, a member of the building cabinet, which is made up of faculty, staff, parents, and students, addressed the school board on May 7, telling them that this year’s 350 seniors have had “different experiences” and “numerous different victories.”

Swain told the board, “We’ve had different teachers; we’ve had different experiences. Some of us have tried sports, some of us are musicians, some of us are going to art school. And, really, at the end of the day, there’s no quantifiable measure for the growth that a lot of us have done over these past four, or all of us have done over these past four years.”

It’s important to foster a sense of community at the graduation ceremony, Swain said. “If we all came into high school together in 2015, and we all walked into this journey that has been completely diverse, completely different for each and every one of us, we should end this chapter of our journey together.”

She continued, “We should be allowed to sit on the floor with all 350 of us, and share this moment that is never going to come back to our lives again, and we should do it as one group instead of 25 percent of us onstage, and the rest on the floor.”

Piscitelli told the board that it had taken months for the cabinet to reach consensus on the issue, and that it had done so too late to make the change for the 2019 graduation, which is scheduled for June 29.

So, Piscitelli said, highest-honors students would have the option this year of sitting on the stage or on the floor with classmates. The change will be implemented for all highest-honors students next year.

Fraterrigo said she had no problem with making the change next year, but said that she thought the compromise move for this year puts the highest-honors students in a “funny situation.” Leaving the choice up to students will mean, she said, that, if they do decide to sit on the stage, their peers might think they consider themselves “superior to everybody else.”

Swain told the board that students had learned their grade-point averages that same day and that, although her GPA would allow her to sit onstage, she would be on the floor with her classmates, because of her “personal philosophy”; it is important to her, she said, to be surrounded by her peers.

The building cabinet surveyed students and faculty about their feelings on the issue. Of the school’s 1,547 students, 414 had chosen to take the optional survey offered in homeroom. A narrow majority of these were in favor of separating students at graduation, with 53.4 percent saying students should be separated based on some criteria at graduation and 46.6 percent percent saying they should not.

Teachers were strongly against separating students, with 76.8 percent of the 56 faculty respondents against and 23.2 percent in favor of separating students. A narrow majority of parents were against separating, with 55.1 percent of the 574 respondents against and 44.9 percent in favor.

Guilderland’s graduation ceremony in recent years has been held at the vast athletic arena at the University at Albany. Piscitelli told the school board that the students on stage stand up en masse and that no one can see them. Their parents would be able to see them if the students were spread out throughout the floor and stood when highest-honors students were asked to stand. He also told The Enterprise that, when these students are seated onstage, the only thing most of them can see is the back of someone’s head.

There is variation among the other schools of the Suburban Council, although none of them have as many students as Guilderland on the stage. Piscitelli told the board that two schools have only the valedictorian and salutatorian sit on stage with the speakers. Five schools have no students sitting on stage. Four schools have only the student speakers and the class officers on the stage. One school has the students with the top 10 grade-point averages and the student speakers on the stage.

Student presenters, who introduce others, currently sit on the stage, as does the student speaker. Anyone wishing to be the student speaker performs his or her speech for a panel, which then selects the speaker. Piscitelli said eight seniors tried out for that role this year. He said that a decision will need to be made by next year about where those students will sit — whether onstage or on the floor with classmates.

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