BAR HARBOR, Maine — At the Mount Desert Island High School graduation on Sunday, the valedictorians — there are two this year; they are twins — did not give speeches, as is the usual tradition at this school and most others across the state.
Instead, the first student speech was given by a senior who had been voted into that role by the faculty and staff, and the second speech was given by one who had been voted by her peers.
The school is phasing in a new system for recognizing students’ achievement. Starting next year, students will no longer be ranked based on their grade point average. Instead, they will use a slightly vaguer system of placing students in one of ten deciles based on their grades, which will appear on the diplomas.
“I think it’s a really good way to shift into the future,” said Jane Pappas, the senior who was elected by her peers to speak this year. “We’re trying to go towards more standards-based education anyway.”
The change is part of a general shift at schools in Maine away from using credits and grades to measure progress and toward meeting the state’s learning standards.
By 2018, high schools will be required to award a proficiency-based diploma. That means students will be able to graduate not because they’ve earned enough credits, but after they’ve demonstrated they’ve met the state’s knowledge and learning standards. The knowledge standards hit on eight subject areas, including math, English, science and social studies, but other standards tackle skills such as communication and critical thinking.
The state recently gave schools the option to extend the transition process one or two years.
Part of the idea behind the change at Mount Desert Island High School is to encourage students to be motivated by what they can learn, rather than their grade point average, said Matt Haney, the principal.
“In a standards-based philosophy, students should be trying to meet the standards,” he said.
It directs them away from the mentality of “I want to beat the other students.”
The idea of changing the way students are recognized originated with a group of juniors and seniors who set out to change the system of awarding grade point average during the 2012-2013 school year, according to Riley Heist, class secretary and student council president, who was one of those students.
The group went to numerous school board meetings, advocating for weighted grade point averages, which would reward students who chose to take more challenging classes.
“Kids felt like if they took an honors class and got a B, it would show up as a B, but if they had taken an easier class they might have gotten a higher grade and their GPA would be higher,” Heist said.
School board members, teachers, parents and students investigated the issue, Haney said. They spoke to college admissions officers to determine how they would interpret a change. Last spring, they decided not to weight the grade point averages, but to do away with the system of ranking students.
“There are so many students who do so well,” Haney said. “The difference between the No. 1 and No. 5 student is not that great.”
Superintendent Howard Colter also supports the shift.
“The feeling was, let’s help students come and take classes because they want to and what motivates them is learning,” he said.
The practice of naming the valedictorian and salutatorian as the graduations speakers will go out with class rank. The school will still keep track of class rank, however, to help students apply for college scholarships.
Gus DenDanto said he was honored to be selected by his teachers to speak at graduation, but he was concerned his experience took something away from the valedictorians.
“I worry that for some people who have spent a long time working toward it, that it takes something away from them and their high school experience,” he said.
At the graduation, Haney spoke of the many accomplishments of the two valedictorians, Isabel and Olivia Erickson, who had both earned all A’s except for one A minus. They were each given a “token of appreciation” at the ceremony.
Though she said she was “a little bit” disappointed not to speak, Olivia Erickson said it was important to recognize everyone.
“Gus and Jane did such a great job,” she added after the ceremony.
DenDanto and Pappas each received a standing ovation after their speeches.