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Sue Holmes kisses her granddaughter Paige on the cheek during Seeley-Swan High School's graduation ceremony last summer. Holmes, the class valedictorian, and 27 of her classmates graduated.

The phase-in of medallions at Hellgate and Sentinel high schools will be complete as graduates cross the stage in June.

It's the end of a four-year process of phasing out the naming of valedictorians and salutatorians at the two schools. They'll join Big Sky in awarding medallions instead.

The change follows a trend nationwide of high schools doing away with valedictorians and class rank.

"Instead of trying to make an older system work in a modern society, we decided we would not do away with academic designation but change it to include a broader indication of skills," said Karen Allen, Missoula County Public Schools executive regional director. "When you apply to college, class rank can count, your academic average counts, but it's also the kinds of things you participated in that count."

In 2012, valedictorians began being designated by cords during the graduation ceremony. Starting in 2014, students with grade point averages of 4.0, 3.5 or higher, and 3.0 or higher were honored in the programs.

"Now it's more about medallions," Allen said. "We built up to that. We didn't lurch the rug out from people who were used to students being designated as valedictorians." 


Big Sky awards Eagle Medallions to graduating seniors who excel in a variety of ways, not solely academically. The school has never named valedictorians, Principal Natalie Jaeger said.

Twenty-five earned medallions last year – and they're always a surprise.

A committee of staff reviews recommendations for the medallions each year. Students must demonstrate at least two of a slew of attributes, from academics to community service to strength of character.

"It's a way of looking at students who excel academically as well as in activities that extend their learning, and then how they participate and excel in the broader community," Allen said. "It's more organic, though when I say that, I don't want to imply there's no standards. Each school has created its own lens of standards for how a student qualifies or is chosen for this special recognition."

Students with a 4.0 GPA will still be honored in graduation programs, as will those who met summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude distinctions. Only the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian are gone.

Big Sky graduates wear different cords and stoles depending on programs, such as a blue-and-white cord for National Honor Society or a yellow stole for Health and Science Academy.

In years past several students were named valedictorians at Hellgate and Sentinel – a reason that some argue the designation has lost its meaning.

"Back in the day there was one valedictorian and one salutatorian," Allen said. "Across the country, there were questions about whether that position, that naming had the same value that it once had."

Seeley-Swan has stuck with tradition, naming one valedictorian and one salutatorian in each class (last year's class had 28 graduates).

Principal Kathleen Pecora said nothing is changing in Seeley. If there's a tie for valedictorian, it's broken using ACT scores.

Class rank will still occur internally, Allen pointed out, as some colleges ask for it when students apply.

"The world has changed," she said. "There's really a sense in high school that we wanted to increase rigor for all kids and look at pathways through high school where you put courses together that lead somewhere that become an underpinning for the future, whether it's going to college or having a career."


At University of Montana, class rank can be a factor, but it's often not the deciding one.

Incoming freshmen have to meet at least one of UM's primary requirements to be admitted:

  • Composite score of at least 22 on the ACT; or
  • Combined score of at least 1120 on the SAT; or
  • 2.50 cumulative grade point average; or
  • Class rank in the upper half of your high school graduating class.

"It (class rank) doesn't play a role in our admissions factor," said Thomas Crady, UM vice president for enrollment. "What it does do is under our current school guidelines, if you have really good grades you're likely to be awarded a stronger scholarship. If you're valedictorian, we take note of that but it doesn't factor currently into our scholarship process – but your grades do."

The National Association for College Admission Counseling found in its 2015 survey that nearly half of colleges surveyed attributed limited to no importance to class rank in admission decisions.

Valedictorians and class rank "are not as cut and dry as a lot of people think," Crady said, which has sometimes led to conflict when schools try to change the tradition.

Some argue it's an important recognition for those students who put in the work. Others say it's a watered-down distinction since many schools nowadays have multiple valedictorians who could have gotten to that position in a variety of ways.

"Having been a mediocre high school student myself, my goal was to be able to afford college. I just didn't pay attention to that (class rank). I didn't think about it," Crady said.

"But I feel strongly that students ought to be recognized for their academic achievements."

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Reporter for the Missoulian