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SWAG discusses public praise for academic success and the merits of merit awards

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students discuss academic achievement and whether it's equitable to show recognition during graduation.People's successes are praised — it's evident everywhere. So when a student excels in school, a sport or for their service to the community, their actions are recognized. But the way different schools and organizations honor those achievements vary.

With graduation and the end of the school year in full swing, we had our Student Writers Advisory Group (SWAG) focus on academic achievement and discuss whether it's equitable for students to receive honors and special academic titles during graduation.

Currently, Lake Oswego and Lakeridge high schools don't have a valedictorian and while West Linn and Wilsonville high schools do, WLHS plans to have its honor grad program — which requires students to take six AP classes and have a specific GPA to qualify — taper out.

We asked our SWAG members whether or not they thought students should be recognized for their academic successes — think graduating with specific honors or titles like valedictorian. We asked for their views about a public display of honor roll and if students with academic achievements are recognized equally to those involved with athletics.

Below are their thoughts:

A healthy dose of competition

The fifth month of the year is infamous for a number of things — most notably, allergies and AP testing. Both are unpleasant, but the difference is that one is inevitable and the other is largely by choice. As one of many students who just recently completed AP testing, I can attest to the immense amount of work that goes into this academic challenge. The looming threat of the big test in May, combined with a heavier course load, make for a stressful school year. Nonetheless, like most challenges in life, there is a sense of fulfillment as well.

It is important to note that AP classes, though often recommended, are not required for graduation. The students who take AP classes have chosen to do so, and those who do well in these courses have put in the necessary work. Thus, it is fitting that their extra efforts in academics be recognized, whether through honor roll or recognition at graduation. However, academics should not be the only thing acknowledged by schools. Students participate in a wide range of activities including athletics, arts and volunteer work, among other things. The diversity of student accomplishments cannot be understated, and all are deserving of praise.

Although I do believe schools should continue to celebrate academic achievement, there are some downsides to traditions like the valedictorian. Healthy competition encourages students to strive to do their best, while unhealthy competition pushes students to the brink. To keep a high class rank, it is necessary to pack your schedule with AP classes. This, as mentioned before, makes for a very stressful year of education. Placing too much of an emphasis on GPA and vigorously demanding that students excel in school is ultimately detrimental to their well-being. Applauding academics is encouraging, but putting it above everything else — even a student's happiness — can have the opposite effect.

— Sydney Byun, Wilsonville High School

Students should be recognized

Why are there 50 cent prizes at carnivals if they know that people don't play the game to win the prize? The little toy isn't very valuable, and the cost of the ticket probably cost more than the prize itself. It's because people didn't buy the tickets to win the prize, they did it with a bigger goal in mind. The prize was just a small, immediate validation.

The same logic can be applied to the honors program. In 2018, with over 40% of West Linn High School students graduating with honors, it has changed into a symbolic award that isn't even recognized by colleges or universities. The program outside of high school isn't very valuable, but it recognizes students' hard work despite the challenges that they encountered during their high school years, which is a very meaningful reward. Students also don't take the six required advanced placement classes with a 3.6 weighted GPA overall required for the honors program just to achieve that small satisfaction. One of the main arguments for getting rid of the honor grad program was that it was pressuring students to take undesired classes just for this merit. Is the honor graduate program really why students are placing this overbearing challenge upon themselves though?

About 900 students at West Linn High School every year take around 1,600 AP exams; that's around two AP classes a year for every student and for a majority of students, that number and/or difficulty of the classes typically increases from one year to the next. So are high schoolers really taking eight or more AP/honors classes for a recognition that isn't valued by universities as more than a gold star sticker? The short answer is no, at least not for the majority of the students. The best colleges in America like Duke, Columbia and Yale require a weighted GPA of above 4.0, and every year the bar gets even higher. It creates the belief that the more AP classes taken, the higher the possible GPA could be, and the more likely the admission into these top colleges. These brand name colleges are supposed to be the key to a successful career in the future, so to academically ambitious students, their entire future rides on how many AP classes they take and how well they do in them. That leads to an unhealthy rise in stress levels, which high school counselors and administers such as WLHS Vice Principal Hanson say is a contributing factor among students, specifically the upperclassmen he works with. He says a lot of them are more concerned with the possibilities of their life beyond high school than with what they are experiencing in the now. It is no wonder that high school administrators are trying to get rid of different high school programs, like graduating with honors, that they believe contribute to the stress caused by an unnecessarily heavy class load. But realistically the stress is coming from this larger goal of a successful future. That six AP class requirement for honors is inevitable due to the steps they already have to take to reach their goal. Most students are not putting this heavy burden on themselves for a 30-second walk on stage with a gold sash or a certificate that will be overshadowed by other more significant accomplishments in the years to come. Graduating with honors is like a pat on the back for a hardworking student and if they are going to take these classes anyway, why take this recognition away?

— Reem Alharithi, West Linn High School

Academic honors are not inequitable

Personally, I believe that honor roll is a great thing! I believe that students being recognized for their academic achievement helps drive them to do well in school. I, and many of my peers, are working very hard to be able to graduate with honors by the end of our high school careers. Students should always be recognized for their academic achievements, and being rewarded with honor roll at graduation teaches students that their hard work really does pay off. On the flipside, if students are rewarded for not achieving, it does not help to instill a strong work ethic. If students don't put in the work, why should they be rewarded? Why is recognition for a positive achievement inequitable? All students are equipped with the same base abilities to be able to achieve honors in school, so the fact that students who choose not to put in the work to do well in school are holding back the ones who do achieve great things is a concept that is very silly to me. If students can no longer be awarded for academic achievement, should they no longer be awarded for athletic achievement? Bottom line: if a student is willing to put in the hard work to do well in school, I don't see anything wrong with them being rewarded for it. What I do see is an unjust rule imposed upon the students who have worked hard in school to get good grades and participate in difficult courses.

— Ainsley Mayes, Wilsonville High School

Expanding honors

As I write this article, I am imagining my own graduation in exactly a week. My classmates and I will walk across the stage, one by one, to receive our diplomas. We will all celebrate having survived four years of high school, not to mention eight years of elementary and middle school before that. We will receive honors for our academic, athletic and extracurricular achievements. We will discuss who is going where and who will make the biggest mark upon the world. In short, graduation is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the past, while looking forward to the future. As such, I do not believe we should stop awarding honors to students who have earned high GPAs or taken many AP classes. Such academic prowess is the result of four years of blood, sweat and tears (a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but only slight), and deserves recognition. Yes, we as a school tend to place too much emphasis on grades and on cramming as many AP classes into our schedule as possible, but does this mean that thriving under such pressure is any less admirable an accomplishment? No, of course not. Besides, I believe students would put just as much pressure on themselves without the motivation of earning honors at graduation. To be honest, students take AP classes to get into college, not to receive a shiny plaque at a ceremony.

At the same time, schools must take a nuanced approach to the issue. Having a valedictorian, for example, creates unnecessary competition between students clamoring to put the title on their resume. A ranking system creates a hierarchy, giving the false impression that one person is better than another. On the other hand, I do not see anything wrong with lauding successful students in general, just as one celebrates athletes who qualify for state or artists who win Scholastic Awards. After all, people deserve recognition for what they do well. Some can weave a compelling essay, some can shoot three-pointers in their sleep, some can play an instrument so beautifully it brings tears to your eyes. As a result, the answer to treating students equitably is not to take away honors, but rather, to expand honors to include as many students as possible. Perhaps some students dedicate hours every day to volunteer service. Perhaps some students dance in productions or run businesses. My fellow seniors and I are dedicated scholars, talented athletes and innovative thinkers. During this ceremony, our last time together as a class, we should appreciate each other for everything and anything we accomplish.

— Elena Lee, Lake Oswego High School

No more valedictorian

There is a significant difference between being on honor roll and graduating with honors compared to being the valedictorian. While the former requires hard work in school, the latter requires insanity. Being awarded valedictorian is honorable, but the title is nothing next to the effort it takes to achieve it. On the other hand, it seems great that honor roll and honors during graduation credit dedicated students, without requiring the extreme accomplishments that valedictorian does. Therefore, I do not think schools should have a valedictorian. I do think that schools should have honors during graduation and honor roll though.

To make all students feel confident by removing honors from graduation reminds me of participation trophies. I know a lot of people have problems with participation trophies. Although participation trophies help kids to have great childhoods, it might cause them to have awful adulthoods because it does not prepare them for the real world. Taking away honor roll also seems ridiculous. If students get awarded for their athletics, they should get awarded for their academics as well.

As an LOHS student, I know I sound biased because my school does not have valedictorian and WLHS will not have an honors graduate program. With no disrespect to WLHS, go Lakers!

— Lily DeVine, Lake Oswego High School

Students at Lake Oswego High School have plenty to say about the current honors system and its effects across a wide range of school activities. In talking to my peers about their passions and extracurriculars, a common theme surfaced: student achievements are certainly diverse, but not equally appreciated. And some are just simply overlooked.

Take Cameron Iizuka, for example. An LOHS sophomore, she's also a dedicated water polo player, student journalist, youth member of the LO City Parks Advisory Board, and ASB Activities Director of two years (this spring, she was re-elected for the 2019-20 school year).

"The most common 'academic or school-related' honors that I've received are being on honor roll and winning my past three elections for student council, which are recognized either through a bulletin on the wall or an announcement on the intercom," she said. "So I can't complain."

But she does miss LOJ's annual awards, which had highlighted every class. At each class-specific assembly, "it was always exciting to hear who won the 'Student of the Year' award or other honors," said Iizuka.

When asked if she thought the honors system benefits her, Iizuka agreed. "I enjoy activities that happen to be very much in the public eye (student council and newspaper), so any [event] or display is generally recognized by the community." But she did acknowledge that the current honors system could "potentially not benefit all students." For example, she said, "students who receive high standardized testing scores and successful athletes are more often awarded compared to their peers who are passionate volunteers, STEM students, or clubs leaders."

Iizuka elaborated: LOHS tends to incentivize "sports culture" while not as equally publicizing the arts. "Is [incentive driven by] competition, reputation, or because it's easier?" she posed.

Doris Yang, a current LOHS junior, shared a different take of LOHS' student recognition. An avid and accomplished competitive debater, she feels that the honors system effectively acknowledges student achievements.

"In particular," she described, "I feel that the daily [intercom] announcements are consistently acknowledge students on a daily basis. That being said, one area of improvement I can identify with the those announcements is that the process for [proposing] announcements is not made readily available to students, so if a student is involved in an independent activity that is not associated with the school, their accomplishments...often go unrecognized."

Lena Wehn, another junior at LOHS, shares those sentiments. A passionate ballerina, Wehn has been dancing since 6th grade. In receiving her results from her RAD Exam (a ballet examination given by the Royal Academy of Dance in London), she received distinction of the institute's highest rank. She also received a State Department scholarship, partnered with the Bolshoi Theater, to dance and study Russian in Moscow for six weeks.

"I don't feel recognition is necessary to determine achievement," she said. "But at the same time, it can be difficult to see LOHS' sports players honored while no one even knows about what I do." The school certainly has a "decent grasp of what happens under their roof," she said. "It's when you get outside of the school that achievements are less-followed."

This can be seen specifically in the context of sports, Wehn described. "You can exempt yourself from a second semester of P.E. by playing a season of a varsity school sport, but the gymnants, fencers, and ballerinas like me," she said, "are left to occupy a useful class period with another physical education requirement because LOHS and [state requirements] don't allow us to confirm our extracurricular commitments."

— Penelope Spurr, Lake Oswego High School

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