Marks Inflation - Lila Huang

The transition to university for Ontario high school students is often a daunting experience. For most, it is the dramatic shift in lifestyle that provides the greatest challenge, as first-year students struggle to manage their life without constant supervision from parents. On the other hand, academics in university should be no different from moving up a grade in high school, right? According to current trends, perhaps not.

Undeniably, the grades of high school students have progressively increased in past years. From 1995 to 2004, the percentage of high school graduates applying to postsecondary education with an A average rose from 52.6 percent to 61 percent. From 1995 to 2003, the amount of Ontario graduates with an A plus average rose from 9.4 percent to 14.9 percent.[1] The average grade of senior students in Ontario from 1997 to 2012 rose from 80 percent to 85 percent.[2] Although this would appear to be good news, the truth is that these increases in marks do not correspond with an increase in student success.

These rising averages mean that, in selecting the top applicants from a given graduating year, universities across Canada have to raise their admission average requirements. Rising admission requirements mean that high schools are pressured into giving even higher averages for students so that they can enter these universities. This vicious cycle is driving mark inflation in Ontario.

The problem of grade inflation first arrived when Grade 13 departmental exams were removed for Ontario students.  This change came about after the publication of the Hall-Dennis report in 1968, a report calling for a complete rework of Ontario’s education system. However, departmental exams were important for graduating high school students because their entire university admission depended on their exam results. As a result of the exams’ discontinuation, universities no longer had a standardized baseline to compare students from across the province. The admissions process had to be changed.

Currently, universities consider the final marks that a student achieves in certain high school courses among various other requirements for admission. The issue lies in the fact that top-tier universities will often publish a minimum grade requirement for students to even be considered for admission. This means that if their grades don’t meet the requirement, their application won’t be reviewed at all.

This consequently puts pressure on both students and high schools to meet these application requirements in order to get into top-tier institutions. Students are no longer trying to put in extra effort to learn challenging course material. Instead, they are more inclined to seek courses that allow them to put in a minimal amount of effort while still achieving a high average. It can be surmised that students have been taking advantage of the fact that important coursessuch as Englishhave to be significantly condensed in order for students to finish the course over the summer. High school courses have now become a numbers game where the winner is the student who has achieved the highest academic average with the least amount of effort and genuine learning.

For its part, the Ontario government’s Ministry of Education is looking to maintain its campaign promises by churning out a higher percentage of graduates every year. They also want “students of all ages” to “achieve high levels of academic performance,[3]” and have “set a goal to improve access to university education and to ensure that 70 percent of Ontarians have postsecondary credentials in order to boost the province’s prosperity.[4]” Their hurdle, then, is to push students who put little effort into studying towards graduation and postsecondary education. The current solution is for teachers to adjust marks for students so that they’re getting higher marks relative to the amount of work they put in. Subsequently, the majority of these graduates get accepted by one university or another.[5]

However, these adjustments are the last thing high school students need. By making it easier for students to acquire high marks in high school, graduating students expect the same in first year university. Their expectations are subsequently crushed with significant average drops in their first year. All of a sudden, students who were breezing through high school with little effort are now struggling to stay afloat in significantly more challenging university courses. Professor Alan Slavin from Trent University described a drop in the average of his introductory physics course from 66 percent to 50 percent over a ten year period from 1996 to 2006. Similar trends were found in the mathematics department at Trent.[6] Brock University also drew attention to this issue in 2010, with a report stating that students entering universities across Canada with an average higher than 90 experienced an average drop in first year of 11.9 percent.[7]

Not only do students have an inadequate grasp of the material that is necessary for first year, but they also lack the skills and work ethic to properly learn the course material. These skills are crucial for post-secondary education and can be valuable tools to students, even after completing their education altogether.

It is obvious, then, that grade inflation is slowly destroying the next generation of students. To address the problem, one solution would be to re-integrate standardized testing. This would force students to prioritize learning course material, as it would be needed to pass the exam. It would also give universities a reliable comparison of candidates across the province and draw the focus away from mark averages. An alternative is to call for universities to consider mark inflation in their admissions process in a defined manner. The University of Waterloo currently deducts the average first year GPA drop from the application scores of students, with the amount of deduction dependent on the academic strength of current Waterloo students from the same high schools. This allows them to see which schools produce the students best suited for university, and give preference to them accordingly.

The problem surrounding inflated marks affects students across the province. The current policies and curriculum changes put in place by the Ontario government are aimed solely at raising statistics. Consequently, these statistics are meaningless. If grades are to regain their worth, the Ministry of Education needs to stop worrying about how to make itself look good with numbers, and focus on actually educating students in Ontario.

[1] Côté, James; Anton, Allahar (2007). The Ivory Tower Blues. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto. 195,198.