Episcopal has adopted a program of Academic Distinctions applicable to Upper School students beginning in this school year-- 17-18. You can read a description of the Academic Distinctions here.
In prior “Academic Points,” you may have read about the high percentages of Episcopal’s students who perform at or above national testing averages. Certainly, we want to serve those students well, but we also want to serve the other students here just as appropriately. In particular, we want to ensure that all students are recognized when they combine their interest (or “passion”) with ability and dedication. Distinctions is a way of recognizing students who have high levels of interest and success in one or more subjects.
It is commonplace in independent schools to find a “closed circuit” of student recognition in which the same few students receive National Merit, Valedictorian, Salutatorian and other classic academic achievement awards. Those classic awards tend to test the same skills and they tend to favor students who do well across the board in traditional academic settings. The same few students—say, the top 5% in GPA’s---seem to walk away with the preponderance of the classic annual and graduation awards. Episcopal will retain all of these classic awards.
The Distinctions program adds the opportunity for a student with great passion and ability in a subject or two—say, French or Physics---to earn recognition as a distinguished student in a particular academic subject. Such a student may miss the GPA-based classic awards due to a let-down in other subjects, say, English and Math, but be a star-- with high grades – in French or Physics. The Distinction or Distinctions will be reflected on the student’s transcript and, therefore, identify the student in their college opportunities as someone with strength in the subject areas about which the student cares greatly.
Our Distinctions program requires accomplishments both in the classroom and outside the classroom. When a student strikes for a Distinction, faculty advisors work with the student to delineate (and agree upon) which experiences outside the classroom will be necessary. For example, a Math Distinction may call for participation in Mu Alpha Theta and an approved service learning project. Among other reasons, the outside the classroom activities are included to reflect to the college and our community a “passion” or “great interest” the student has in the subject area.
I predict that Distinctions will engender from within the students a deeper love of learning. Student choice, ownership, and mentoring are elements of Distinctions which are known, thru educational research, to result in commitments to being a life-long learner. In other situations, Episcopal students have blossomed when they are partners of a kind in their academic adventures.
Over time, Honors Thesis became the only method of graduating “with Honors” at Episcopal. The Class of 2018 will be the last class for which the “with Honors” route will pertain. As we developed more avenues of achievement for students ---ESTAAR is a fine example --- the use of Honors Thesis as the safe route to a main recognition began to appear out of date. “Thesis” will now be a “Distinction,” which maintains the substance of the very valuable Honors Thesis program. In short, the Distinctions program replaces, with it multiple routes to being recognized, the single-route approach which Honors Thesis had become. Those who seek the “Thesis” Distinction will have access to the same program that has been known as “Honors Thesis.”
As with all new items, Distinctions may be altered over time as we learn from experience. Additional Distinctions may be added, including a Distinction in Global Studies. However, I do not anticipate any major changes in the use of Distinctions as one of Episcopal’s primary vehicles for recognizing and publishing the academic achievements, abilities, passions and interests of Upper School students.
In the main, Distinctions was, in my view, mandated by the enhancements in academic ability which accumulated in Episcopal’s student body over the last decade. Keeping the “Thesis” experience available as a Distinction, while opening up a much broader range of skill and interest recognitions seemed both fair and reinforcing to our student body. Rather than one route to graduating “with Honors,” many more students will be able to be recognized for their academic achievements and hard work.
One of my goals for Distinctions is that a wider range of colleges (say, those with strong engineering programs) will be able to identify our students as appropriate for admission. My hope is that students, while at Episcopal, will uncover, by striking for a Distinction or two, their innate abilities and interests in depth.