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When is an "A" not quite an "A"?

Standarized testing advocates say a common barometer for all students is necessary because of grade inflation at the high school level. How serious is the problem?

by Catherine Tylee

There is a general perception that the average mark of a graduating Ontario high school student has risen considerably over the last 30 years.
In November 2003, the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, ran a four part series called Measuring Up about the need for standardized testing. One of the most important reasons for standardized tests citied in that series was grade inflation. The education reporter for another national Canadian newspaper, Caroline Alphonso, wote an aricle about the unusaully high entrance marks needed to get int0 university in 2003, and grade inflation came up as well. And well-known coloumnist Margaret Wente wrote a piece about the bad effects of grade inflation - also in 2003.
Grade inflation has been a concern since standardized departmental exams, once mandatory, were phased out of the provincial high school system in 1967, and grades began a slow climb across the province. The issue of students getting grades that don't reflect their abilities hasn't gone away. 
The competition to get one of the limited places in university increased in 2003, the double-cohort year. High school students focussed on getting the highest marks possible, especially if the university they wanted to get into was a prestigious school. The competitive pressure created by the double cohort caused some anxiety among out of province universities about grade inflation in Ontario high schools. They were worried that, under the circumstances, teachers might bump up their students' grades to help them get into university.  
The University of Alberta considered automatically lowering the grades of Ontario students by six percentage points in 2003, because of suspected grade inflation. An Ontario student who had a 86%, for example, upon applying to the University of Alberta,would be considered to have only an 80%. The following year, Quebec's McGill University admitted that students from Ontario were given a higher cutoff grade than students from other provinces. Both Alberta and Quebec have standardized provincial testing as a key component of high school graduation requirements. Alberta conducts province-wide grade 12 exams, and in Quebec students are required to write provincial exams before they enter the final two years of secondary school.
When capacity is constricted, issues around grade inflation surface, and although Ontario universities have worked to provide more spaces for an increasing demand, there are not always enough places, particularly in prestigious universities that are the first choice of many students.

An "A" Is Not Always An "A"

Professors at Ontario universities are concerned that grade inflation has been giving incoming first year students expectations of academic success that they cannot possibly fulfill.The University of Western Ontario in London ranks as the first choice on many applications, and consequently has far more applicants than it can accept.  Kevin McQuillan, an acedemic colleague with Council of Ontario Universities and a Professer of Sociology at Western, says grade inflation at the high school level makes it difficult for Resistrar's Offices to assess the academic abililities of potential students.
 "The problem is the inconsistency across students," he said. McQuillan is worried that as students are included in an increasingly narrow range of grades at the high school level, universities won't be able to judge which students are the most qualified. Virtually every student who comes through Western's doors is an  "A" student, McQuillan said, but he doesn't think all the "A"'s are equivalent.

Grade Compression, Not Grade Inflation

McQuillan points out that the term "grade inflation" is not eaxctly accurate, as inflation is generally referring to prices in a free-market economy, which effectively have no upper limit. In a system where 100% is the highest possible value, a more accurate term, McQuillan suggests, is grade compression. High school grades, he said, will lose thier evaluative power if almost everyone graduating is compressed into a grade range of 80% to 90%.
"What we really need is a good evaluation of where those students stand in preparation," McQuillan said. Although he acknowledges there is "no magic solution to the problem," he thinks a standarized, curiculum-based test is the best way to go. "We need some element that's common to all students in the system. We know that these tests have problems, but I still think you need some element that is a common basis for evauation." McQuillan is optimistic though, that the new ciriculum, which was developed in consultation with universities, will slow the upward climb of high school marks.
If there is a push for standardized testing in the province of Ontario, McQuillan believes that it will come from universities who have the largest number of applicants for the fewest places. He thinks those schools would include Queen's University in Kingston, The University of Toronto, and The University of Western Ontario in London. These prestigious universities will want to assure that they really are getting the cream of the crop.
In the period from 1985-86 to 2001-02, McQuillan said, the average entering grade of an OAC graduate has risen almost five percentage points, from just over 76% to almost 81%.
"We know there's been grade inflation," said McQuillan, "the question is, what problems does it cause?"

High School Teachers Under Pressure

Given the intense competition for first-choice schools, high school teachers are often hassled by the parents of ambitious students to give higher grades. John Campbell is a Trustee with the Toronto District School Board. Trustees manage public school school prinicipals in a set geographic district. They generally supervise 20-22 schools. Campbell said he hears from unhappy parents on regular basis.  "Parents are just all over teachers, they are desperate for students to get high marks," he said.
"How does a kid graduate out of high school with an 80% average and they can't write an essay?"
-John Campbell, Toronto District School Board Trustee
Some parents who send in their complaints via e-mail often send an electronic copy to the Ontario Minister of Education as well. "There's alot of pressure on teachers to give good marks, and there's alot of pressure on schools to show good results. Schools like to boast about their results, about how many of their kids go on to university, and of those kids, who has the higher marks when they go to university." 
Campbell has heard stories about students who are coming into universities unprepared.  He wonders "how does a kid graduate out of high school with an 80% average and they can't write and essay?"

Teachers Talk

Mark Tinkess is a retired high school teacher. He taught math, chemistry, and physics at Dryden High School for 31 years. He said people tend to link student marks with teacher evalution. The idea being that if a teacher is teaching properly, then all their students should be passing. Inexperienced teachers are more likely to lack confidence, he said. Inexperienced teachers are more likely to bump up a student marks because they're more likely to view those marks as an evaluation of their own competence. Tinkess said demands of the school principal are also a factor: the principal too, may fear their schools' results reflect on them personally. "Inflation will come naturally if a teacher or a principal is afraid of personal evaluation," said Tinkess.
Adreana Cottrill teaches English at Grimsby High School. She uses the rubrics that the Ontario Ministry of Education recommends in evaluating her classes. The rubrics aim for a scientific method of evaluation, but Cottrill said that "English is still somewhat subjective no matter how many rubrics you give." Rubrics are meant to be a standardized measurement of evaluation.
READ MORE About Rubrics
Cottrill said the rubrics also theoretically established a "B" grade as the performance aim. "To get an "A" a student would have to have done more that the teacher expected for that grade level, she said. But when teachers started giving marks using a "B" grade as the aim, "Parents would flip out," she said, "they'll say 'my kid's always been an "A" student.'"
Cottrill said teachers spend an entire year developing a students' final mark. If teachers want a student to go the university,"you're going to bump them up."  Teachers are human, she said and "if a kid has a 79%, why not bump them up to an 80%?"

Some Anecdotal Evidence, But No Statistical Evidence

While there's anecdotal evidence that there may be some grade inflation, there is no hard statistical evidence that supports a theory of widespread grade inflation. Robert Brown works for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in research and information services. In 1998, provincial legislation amagamated what was seven school boards into one school board. This "instantly created one of the largest school boards in North America, " said Brown, "and getting historical information in this context has been, to say the least, interesting."
Brown has been working on a major research initiative that tracks student success indicators such as applications to university, in the TDSB. The research will be used to improve schools and help with budgeting. Brown discovered many challenges in trying to track data of high school graduates. There have been constant changes in:
  • Hardware and software of computer systems,
  • Adminstrative and funding,
  • Education Policy
So what should be, in theory, the simple replication of information about student populations, like grades, is actually complex and painstaking data reconstruction. Retrieving some types of historical information about students has been difficult, and in some cases, impossible.  "In an ideal world," said Brown, "once a data process has been set up, it should remain constant until the end of time. Reality rarely reflects this."
Complete data that compares the grades of graduating high school students in Ontario year-to-year is not readily available, even to professionals researching education in the province.

Lack of Province-Wide Testing Contributes To Grade Inflation

Roma Harris is the Vice-Provost of Students at the University of Western Ontario. She said the lack of an Ontario-wide test for students leaving high school is problematic, and contributes to the inflation of grades.
Across the high school system, there should be some commonality in what all students can be expected to know when the graduate, said Harris. "I think that would be reassuring to alot of people."
"If I had an opportunity to design the system again," she said, "I'd like to see standardized testing in key subject areas across the province." She would like tests in math and English, and only for university-bound students, "It's not necessary to subject everyone else to that," she said. 
But, she dosen't see standardized tests or grade inflation as a critical policy issue in education right now.
 There is enough capacity in the post-secondary education system to absorb the students who are qualified to continue their studies, she said, although not every student will get their first choice. High schools have focussed a lot of attention on an already priviledged group, Harris said. She thinks high school students who are not going on to university are getting short-changed in this debate.
READ MORE about high school students who are not going on to university: Graduation Gridlock
 [Photo credit, Top; stock.xchang, all others; Catherine Tylee]


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