It ought to be no real surprise that universities have learned over time that a mark from one senior high school is not equal to one from another one. A recently available article in the Toronto Star flags Waterloo’s engineering programme, one of the toughest to find yourself in in Canada, as having developed an adjustment factor. Among those whose marks the programme discounts the most were two Oakville schools: King’s Christian Collegiate and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School. Shockingly, Toronto’s prestigious Upper Canada College also found itself designated as needing a significant mark discount when evaluating applications.

Back in the 1960s, once the boomers who shaped the existing Ontario were in senior high school, about 3% of students became Ontario scholars. Now it’s more than 60%. Kids could be smarter, and teaching may be better, but it isn’t believable that students leaving high school are that a lot more able. Clearly, good marks are easier to get than they used to be, and in a few schools a lot more than others.

Higher marks result in a large amount of problems. It becomes very difficult to distinguish between the best students when there are so most of them. Maybe even worse, students are led to believe they are more prepared than they are actually and face sometimes substantial and life-changing disappointment if they arrive in post-secondary education.

This recent Maclean’s article gives an insight into what this may mean to students facing the reality of post-secondary standards, a few of whom determine they ought to not have been in the institution in the first place. Nevertheless, universities and colleges can simply raise their admission standards, which is what they will have done as mark inflation has run rampant across Ontario.

However, when that inflation is uneven from one school to another, it makes the post-secondary institutions’ job much more difficult. Based on the Star’s article, Waterloo is rolling out its adjustment factor in line with the performance of students from the given school in the initial year of these engineering programme as time passes. It has to have enough students to make the comparison meaningful and establish a pattern.

Before 1960s, province-wide exams, referred to as “departmentals,” contributed to the senior high school leaving marks of Ontario students. They were graded anonymously, after being shipped to Toronto, by teachers apart from those who had taught the students.

While Scholastic Aptitude Tests (now simply called SATs) in the United States assessed ability to learn, the departmental exams assessed achievement, which senior high school graduation marks generally represent. These exams were similar to Advanced-level (A-level) exams in England, or Baccalaur�at exams in France, which continue to exist (as in most European countries), and in those countries produce 100% of the marks directed at universities and colleges for admission. (The International Baccalaureate (IB) works on these principles and is available in Ontario. Many top international universities have greater confidence in such evaluations than in marks assigned by schools with which they have little or no experience.)

Oakville homes are country-wide. All teachers in all schools, including parents homeschooling children, know that they will face these tests. This eliminates grade inflation in earlier years and in mid-year evaluation: grades that not truly represent the student’s potential will undoubtedly be found out ultimately. Virtually every country has them except Canada: even the United States has the SAT to help post-secondary institutions compare students’ capabilities whatever the school they attended.

The arguments against such exams are many. Students face many pressure, and their future is determined by their performance in some three hour written exams. Such exams favour visual learners and will close the door for able students whose abilities are different. There are concerns about “teaching to the test”, limiting teachers’ abilities to explore topics and problem-solving techniques. Proponents point out that at some stage there will be this evaluation to graduate from university or even to gain a professional qualification, and delaying it serves no purpose. Further, they indicate the evils of grade inflation which has obviously run rampant in Ontario since such exams were abandoned.

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