A question frequently asked of us is “What do the honors cords (or stole or medallion) mean?”
The answer is that here is no clear-cut precedent throughout the educational establishment for any of the honors items. They mean different things in different educational systems, and their use varies widely depending on the locale. As a general rule, honors cords have historically represented membership in a society or club, most commonly an honors society. But on a college undergraduate level, they are often used to designate a level of grade point average for the graduate.
What we have seen is a trend toward “dumbing down” the honors apparel. We know that there are many high schools that purchase honor cords for each student. Everyone wears them; they are merely decorations. The same is true of the honors stole (sometimes called a sash). At some school commencement exercises everyone wears a stole and those with some special honors may have theirs embroidered or printed, while the rest are plain. Some high schools award honors cords for "participation," with a given number of points for attendance at certain events. Obviously, in many cases the use of honors apparel has gone the way of much of the educational establishment!
People often ask “What do you suggest?”
If you are planning a graduation for a homeschool group or a small school where there has never been a clear decision about what honors apparel may be worn, we suggest that you make a determination of what the various items mean within your establishment. Publish it in the program so that everyone knows what those items stand for, and then stick with it from year to year. Consistency is important. If a family has a graduate one year who earns a level of distinction which is recognized at the ceremony, and then two years later, a younger sibling who has not achieved nearly the same level is honored in the same way, confusion results. Those attending (and especially the students themselves) will feel that the honors are arbitrary.
The same is true of a single-family ceremony. Decide what you wish to honor your student for and then be consistent with the next graduate. Academic achievement does not have to be measured by grade point level -- ACT or SAT scores could be used as a standard. Nor is academic achievement the only criterion. Parents might want to make it a part of the ceremony to award a stole, a medal, or set of cords in recognition of a particular character quality or achievement of excellence in an area of their son or daughter's life. We have seen medallions used increasingly to honor a student who has overcome great adversity in their life
We suggest that you set standards of achievement for various honors apparel, and then be consistent. We encourage you to set high standards and honor true excellence!