Beyond Honor Roll: Celebrating a Diversity of Student Achievement

In a school assembly a couple of years ago, the head of middle school read every student’s name who had achieved honor roll status for the term. He asked the students to stand when he called their name. The listing of names went on until finally only about 10% of the class was still seated as he praised the accomplishments of those standing. It was shocking to observe this ratio of honor roll students versus non-honor roll students.  
When I saw disappointed faces of the few students still seated, some crucial questions arose: If about 90% of the students are achieving this honor, is the bar set too low? Do those standing represent the top 90% of the most dedicated, hardworking, mission-aligned students at the school? Do the remaining 10% have equitable access to achieve the honor roll criteria? If a large percentage of your student body earns honor roll status, another important question to ask is, “Are the grades inflated?” (I remember a colleague—an English teacher—saying in a student support meeting that a particular seventh grader was having extreme difficulty writing an essay, which was considered a minimum requirement. At the same time, this student was earning a 93 in the class. Perhaps the grade wasn’t accurately indicating the student’s performance.)
Maybe this doesn’t happen at your school. But if anything close to this does, it might be time to take a look at the role of honor roll at your school. With the end of the year awards ceremonies just around the corner, now is the time to start reflecting on your school’s honor roll practices and think about what messages we’re sending the students. The first step is looking at the data. Then ask, are there ways to shine the light on academics, arts, community service, or other extracurricular achievements? Your next awards ceremony has the potential to highlight the varied pathways to achievement.

Realizing the Issue

In some schools, a “C” disqualifies students from the list and thus might be enough to deter a student from taking an advanced class. Are we telling students to only choose classes in which they can safely earn an A? And who has access to these “A” grades? Rick Wormeli writes in an Association for Middle Level Education publication, “Honor Roll? Really?,” “Of greater concern is the flimsy nature of the single factor used to designate those worthy of honor roll status: grades. Yikes! As most teachers know, grades are subjective, relative, and inferential at best. They are fragile things on which to base so much celebration and rejection.”
In an opposing point of view mentioned in a September 2021 op-ed in the New York Post, By Getting Rid of Grades and Honor Rolls, NYC’s Education Department Will Hurt the Kids it Claims to Want to Help”, Kyle Smith writes, “To bubble-wrap the feelings of those who don’t make honor roll, do away with the honor roll? Honor rolls and other kinds of awards are motivators that drive people to succeed.” The argument for keeping honor roll may also appear in the form of “so you want everyone to get a trophy?” No, that’s not what deemphasizing grades is about. Rather, the suggestion is to shine the light on a broader diversity of student achievement.

Reimagining the Ceremony

Your school community might have come to expect honor roll status recognition. This puts pressure on the school to keep it up. Small shifts can be made by adding a variety of awards. Consider the following suggestions for enhancing your next awards ceremony.
Add club, arts, and community awards. Ask faculty club sponsors to share award winners within their club, such as a Quiz Bowl team recognition, honorable mention for a local poetry contest, art show finalists, entrepreneurial club “Best Business Pitch” award, etc. By recognizing these accomplishments in front of the entire student body, you are demonstrating that the school values achievement beyond traditional report card grades.
One year, a student in my video production class won honorable mention in our public library’s youth film contest. She was not the type of student who usually took home academic medals, but that year she received acknowledgment and applause from the entire upper school. Faculty can nominate students for other awards such as ones that recognize students’ service learning, MVP on the class camping trip for taking an above and beyond initiative to pitch in, or remarkable sustainability efforts, such as volunteering with the school recycling program.
Consider another kind of academic award. Teachers can recognize one student per course who exemplifies effort, dedication, and excellent work but doesn’t necessarily have the top average. To further deemphasize grades, teachers can submit names for “Most Creative Thinker,” “Dedicated Student,” “Science Fair Project Crowd Favorite.” (Maybe avoid the “Most Improved” award. My students confessed that this award was embarrassing to receive.)
Take honor roll off-site. You might be thinking, “Our awards assembly is already two hours long—we can’t possibly add more awards.” Try this timesaver: At my school, honor roll certificates are mailed to students’ homes rather than read aloud at an assembly. The parents are happy because they can frame the certificate as a keepsake.
Since our school has made the effort to recognize a broader diversity of our student talents, our award ceremonies conclude with many students proudly walking away with medals and certificates that celebrate their accomplishments in the arts, community service, and academics. As your school starts to think about award ceremony season, consider how to broaden the scope of awards presented. You never know which future artist, community activist, or CEO will be recognized.   
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Crystal Frommert

Crystal Frommert is an education writer, middle school administrator, and math educator with experience in international, parochial, and independent schools.