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In modern schools, everyone succeeds, no one learns

Harvard boasts it had 442 valedictorians in its Fall 1998 class. This information is incomplete. Did all 442 valedictorians come from the same high school? The number of valedictorians reigning over high school commencement proceedings is exceeded only by the number of multicultural clergy praying at such.

Largely through the efforts of odd parents possessed by litigious lawyers who espouse the inalienable right to academic recognition, high schools could post valedictorian numbers much as McDonald's tallies burgers on it arches. In a society nearly fully transposed from equal opportunity to equal outcome, there can no longer be a valedictorian for such a distinction is exclusionary and defeats self-esteem.Colorado's Fieldcrest High School had 18 valedictorians this year and a Birmingham, Ala., high school that ranks all students with a 4.0 as number one named 5 percent of its 335 graduating seniors as valedictorians. An Oklahoma school was sued by the parents of one valedictorian who foolishly demanded the ouster of two other valedictorians.

Many schools have halted litigation by eliminating class rank. Rankings are just too much of a strain on the psyches of the little darlings who can't even deal with wearing last year's Doc Martens, let alone being brutally ranked. One should not dabble in the psyches of the young who appear to possess both the weaponry and callous zeal that could win a ground war in Kosovo.

Just when you think liberalism has reached its peak in fostering mediocrity, it emerges in high school rankings. The abandonment of performance standards in academe affords students equality in everything shy of a Mao uniform. As is generally the case with equality of outcomes initiatives, their proposed solution skirts the issues as well as the problems.

Problem No. 1: grade inflation. "C" is considered a failing grade because, in the United States, all nitwits are above average. "Average" is an ugly word in education. A 4.0 grade point was once rare, not even occurring every school year. Now such an average is commonplace. Indeed, a 4.0 is a low GPA these days which leads to: Problem No. 2: weighted classes and convoluted computations. In weighted classes, students earn a 5.0, not 4.0, for an "A." A 4.0 is actually quite low for GPA computational gymnastics, which are more challenging than most high schools courses and intricate in their GPA maximization nuances.

A Colorado high school has been sued by the parents of a girl who was not among the school's valedictorians because she did not understand the GPA game. In our district, if you don't pass/fail a non-weighted course during high school, you can't maximize your GPA. Thus, ever-motivational educrats have sent the clear signal to the best students to take a course and goof off. The very best students must thus take at least one bonehead class in order to maximize their GPAs. My daughter took a weight-training course in which she was the only student without pierced body parts. One classmate, Monifa, upon feeling her pelvic bone one day asked to be excused from lifting weights because, as she told the PE teacher, "I have cancer of the a--."

Problem No. 3 is the generic unwillingness of educrats to admit that there are indeed boneheads in high school. No matter what students do in high school, they are, through grade inflation and the theory of universal passage, given the right to go on and inflict mediocrity in higher education. There is no stop sign for boneheads at the high school level. For example, some students are largely stoned during high school. Is it terribly unfair to ask that these students have a lower class rank than students who endured the experience sober?

Further, those who attended class with their headphones off deserve a higher class rank than those who passed the time in high school English classes memorizing the lyrics to Toad the Wet Sprocket songs.

Problem No. 4 is that grades and ranking have not only become meaningless but largely irrelevant. Until they can achieve elimination of grades altogether, the idiots running the village have developed a different means for dealing with inequities in academic outcomes.

Volunteerism is now a prerequisite for college scholarships and admission. A good SAT and high grades are terribly plebeian. One must have saved whales or engaged in some AIDS-related cause for top school admission and/or scholarships. Lobbying for health benefits for partners would get you a full-ride scholarship and protesting against gun shows would ensure Ivy League entre, and perhaps an appearance on Rosie.

This is the era of multi-valedictorians when a 453-page college scholarship book, "The Higher Education Money Book," is filled with nothing but scholarships for women and minorities. USA Today names 20 students who "stand out for their brilliance, their daring and their caring." One helped care for sick children in Haiti and concluded, "The sickness of a child is grossly unfair." Now, there's a mind. Life unfair? Sure.

Some win, some lose. Too bad high school insulated her from this lesson.

Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Her e-mail address is mmjdiary@aol.com