Does the School Honor Roll Still Make the Grade?
The honor roll has long been a recognition of academic success, mostly for high school students. But a look at first term honor rolls at Upper Valley high schools raises questions about whether they are sufficient to motivate students.
At Hanover High School, 67 percent of the student body was on the first term honor roll this year. At Windsor High School, the proportion was 16 percent. The Sharon Academy dropped its honor roll years ago. And at Oxbow Union High School, which already has an honor roll, officials are instituting a program to recognize student academic achievement with the fervor usually reserved for cheering on playoff-bound athletes.
How to explain these discrepancies, and what is the use of the honor roll? If there’s a common thread in the answers of school officials, students and parents, it’s student motivation. Of all the factors that motivate students — parental urging, college dreams, competition with peers or personal drive — the honor roll isn’t the sharpest spur. While schools officials aren’t doing away with honor rolls, they are considering other ways to motivate all students, not just those with top grades.
“Honor roll is sort of an archaic way of honoring students who achieve,” said Michael Kell, principal at Windsor High School. Teachers and parents should focus on recognizing a student’s achievements, including the work of those who raise their grades but still don’t reach honor roll territory, he said.
Most Upper Valley high schools split their honor rolls into at least two categories, honors and high honors, reserving the latter for students who earn all A grades. Most of the schools who responded to requests for first quarter results had 40 to 45 percent of students on the honor roll, with Hanover, Lebanon and Windsor high schools far outside that range. Lebanon High School, where 63 percent of students were on the first term honor roll, joined Hanover as the only other school above 45 percent.
Grade inflation seems like a plausible reason some schools have high percentages of students on the honor roll. A federal Department of Education study found that high school grade point averages rose steadily from 1990 to 2009, and education experts who study grading note that it remains deeply subjective and varies from teacher to teacher.
But Hanover officials said making good grades, and the honor roll, really matters to students, most of whom plan to head off to top colleges.
“It’s kind of the norm in this community that people value education,” high school Principal Justin Campbell said.
What this means, however is that support in school starts early, with parents who read to their children in the cradle, who foster curiosity and love of learning. By the time such children reach high school, their habits are so ingrained that making the honor roll may be less motivating than taking on challenging material.
“They’ve been kind of easy kids to teach,” Norwich mom Vicky Fish said of her three sons, 17-year-old twins Andrew and Noah Huizenga, and Peter Huizenga, 14. All three made high honors for the first term. In elementary school, “We were mostly concerned that they were happy when they went to school and happy when they came home from school,” she said.
The family prizes education. Fish has a master’s in public health and her husband, Hugh Huizenga, is a doctor. “We encourage them to keep challenging themselves and not to worry about grades,” Fish said.
If some high school students begin to develop good habits at birth, the reverse also is true: Some children never experience the joy of learning, and high school is awfully late to start fostering it.
At Windsor, students who struggle often haven’t had a breakthrough moment in the classroom, said Ethan Hill, 16, a junior.
“When you look at kids who are failing classes, most of them it’s because their parents aren’t involved,” Hill said. His parents push him to make good grades, he said.
But when first asked about what motivates him in school, Hill said the honor roll wasn’t a big factor. College is an expectation.
Jadie Dow, a senior at Windsor, agreed.
“It’s a piece of paper,” Dow said of the quarterly honor roll. “They post it over there and people will stab pencils into it. They don’t care.”
Like Hill, her own goal is longer term: She wants to be the first in her family to earn a college degree.
Being on the honor roll does confer some real-world benefits, such as a discount on car insurance, noted Rachel Meagher, also a senior at Windsor.
“Grades have always been important to me,” and to her family, too, Meagher said.
Another senior, Matthew Grimo, 17, said he wasn’t very motivated as a freshman or a sophomore, but had a class in 10th grade that steadied his efforts.
“Part of what helped me was that I had a teacher who saw that I had potential,” Grimo said. He’s now taking Chinese at Dartmouth to supplement his Windsor classes.
Prior to that experience, he felt there was little talk at the school about what students want to do with their lives. “I think they should start talking early on about what students want to do,” he said.
Kell, now in his third year leading Windsor High School, said plans are afoot to change the way students are recognized for their work.
“The next piece we want to look at is how are we challenging all students,” he said.
Students come into high school believing they are a certain kind of student. It’s an obstacle to improvement, he said.
“We need to move that fixed mindset over to a growth mindset,” he said. The school needs to do more to reward student improvement, he said, citing the example of a student who makes a 66 in the first term of a math class, then improves to an 83 in the second term. Kell said he’s looking at certficates and recognition and an awards assembly.
Dow noted that Windsor celebrates success at sports more than it does academic achievement.
“I think if our school cracked down more on eligibility to play sports,” that would provide greater incentive to excel in the classroom, she suggested, adding that she feels the school sometimes lets students skate along.
“I just think there needs to be more incentive” for students to improve their academic performance, she said.
Dropping the honor roll altogether seems like a radical strategy, but it has worked for The Sharon Academy.
“What we do instead is celebrate students on an ongoing basis,” both for classroom work and community service, said Brian Tonks, academic dean at the 15-year-old independent school. Those celebrations happen in newsletters, at school assemblies and at graduation, where all graduates are encouraged to speak.
“Students appreciate other students’ achievements and celebrate each others’ good grades,” Tonks said.
How to foster more of that behavior, and from a broad cross-section of the community, has been a project at schools across the country for years. It’s a relatively new strategy in New England.
Oxbow Union High School, in Bradford, Vt., is working on such a program, said guidance director Lomond Richardson. She and two other staff members attended a conference last summer sponsored by Josten’s, the company that makes class rings. There, presentations from other schools around the country showed academic pep rallies as big and boisterous as their football counterparts, Richardson said.
“We’re just starting. We’ve done small things,” she said. Students get “kudos cards,” small postcards from teachers for positive actions. Part of the card is torn off and goes into a drawing for prizes. Plans are in the works for an academic pep rally, perhaps next month.
“At the conference, there were people who have been doing things like this for 20 years,” Richardson said. Oxbow Principal Larry Walsh instituted the program after using something similar at a school in Washington State.
Conference attendees also warned her that there would be skeptics. “You’ll get people who say ‘Why are we recognizing kids for doing what you want them to do anyways?’ ” she said. But if you recognize them for doing right, they’re more likely to do it again, and so make it a habit, she counters.
Their plan calls for celebrating not just honor roll students, but improved students, “Anything you can find that can target as many students as you can to recognize that they’re working hard,” she said.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.