Queen's University — Since 1873
19th September 2008

Making the grade

Standard tests could solve grade inflation problem, expert says

Alberta administers Diploma Tests in core subjects to grade 12 students. The tests count for 50 per cent of the students’ marks.
Alberta administers Diploma Tests in core subjects to grade 12 students. The tests count for 50 per cent of the students’ marks. (Matthew Rushworth)

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Students arriving at Queen’s are often told they’re surrounded by only A-students. But with more A-students in Ontario than ever before—and the number rising—what does that really mean?

Some experts say the number of A-students isn’t growing because people are getting smarter. Rather, academic standards have declined so it’s easier to get an A than ever before—a phenomenon known as grade inflation.

James Côté, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario, said grade inflation creates an education system that hurts students.

“It differentiates among students less and gives them less feedback on the quality of the work,” he said. “It’s generally a disincentive for working harder because it really means it’s easier to get a higher grade. For the students who deserve the higher grade in the first place it can be demoralizing. … It also gives people false feedback that they themselves are above average. They get an inflated view of themselves in terms of who they are and what they can do academically.”

Côté co-authored Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, which chronicles academic disengagement and grade inflation in post-secondary schools worldwide.

“It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.”

When the Ontario Scholar program was introduced in the 1960s, average performers were C-students and A-students were considered exceptional, Côté said. Now, 90 per cent of Ontario students have a B average or above, and 60 per cent of students applying to university have an A average.

When grade inflation reaches a certain point, it also produces grade compression, where a large percentage of students’ marks are within a narrow range. Côté said grades have risen steadily since the 1970s and have reached a point of crisis.

“We’re at that crisis point where they’re so compressed you’ve got to ask what they mean. Is this helping students?”

Côté said the phenomenon hinders students’ chances of getting undergraduate spots at top universities.

“The grading system isn’t all that useful in many respects. So in terms of admissions to universities there’s a lot of unfairness in admissions,” he said, adding that a high school teacher he knows sent her daughter to a different school to avoid grade inflation.

“Her daughter got a better education, but then she couldn’t get into her first-choice university.”

Standardized testing would help curb the problem, Côté said. Currently Alberta and Quebec have Diploma Exams for graduating students. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have similar tests, while British Columbia has a mandatory English proficiency test in grade 12.

“I think we’re hesitant to [use standardized tests] in Canada, but it would help,” he said. “Those tests do have their limitations, but it’s another tool.”

Côté said he encountered a lot of opposition while writing his book, co-authored with colleague Anton L. Allahar, and many administrators deny that grade inflation exists.

“Some people don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “These people, I think, have a different view of what education’s about. People think it’s a universal right and we should let people stay in the education system ad infinitum. … Of course, to do that, we have to really lower our standards.”

Stuart Pinchin, associate University registrar of Undergraduate Admission at Queen’s, said the admissions process assesses each pool of applicants on a year-by-year basis.

“If there is grade inflation—and I’m not saying there is or there isn’t—but if there is, the pool would be inflated, so we’re still looking for the top-performer students to come to Queen’s,” he said.

Pinchin said Queen’s doesn’t differentiate between marks at different schools because there are too many discrepancies to consider.

“There are all kinds of variables,” he said. “It would be impossible to account for them all. When we make an offer of admission, and I’m generalizing here, but for a student who is attending full-time high school, we’re making an offer based on high school marks we have that’s conditional on them achieving final grades.”

Pinchin added that standardized testing doesn’t make a big difference in the application process, since the results don’t come in until August when students have already been accepted.

Although Queen’s doesn’t do so, other schools have considered weighing marks differently depending on where students are applying from.

In 2003, the University of Alberta considered adding a six per cent handicap to applications from Ontario, meaning that an Ontario student applying with an 86 per cent average would be considered as having an 80 per cent average by Alberta standards.

John Rymer, executive director for Learning Assessment at the Alberta Department of Education, said except for a brief period in the 1970s, Alberta has always had province-wide standardized testing. In the ’70s, the province made the switch to exclusively teacher-assigned marks, but soon found grade inflation became an issue, he said.

“There was grade inflation and there was concern that there wasn’t a standard to which students were being held,” he said. “Diploma exams were introduced in 1983 and we’ve had them ever since.”

The Alberta Diploma exams are given in grade 12, covering core subjects such as biology, chemistry, English, math, physics and social studies. The exams are worth 50 per cent of a grade 12 student’s final mark.

Rymer said standardized testing eliminates the variables inherent in teacher-assigned marks.

“What we find happening is that each individual teacher has their own personal standard for the learning outcomes that are being taught,” he said.

“Teaching’s a really social world,” Rymer added. “I think teachers are impacted by all of the factors that impact anyone in social interaction. There could be bias or any number of factors that contribute to how things are marked.”

Holding students to a common standard was a concept especially advocated by post-secondary institutions when Alberta re-instituted standardized tests in 1983, Rymer said.

“There was extreme concern from post-secondaries, but also from the business communities and parents. You can have some really remarkable extremes at the teacher and school level. You can have schools where whatever you do gets you a mark,” he said.

“Pretty much every province has some form of testing. In every situation where you look at the teacher marks and what the exam demonstrates, the teacher marks tend to be higher.”

Lindsay Wynne, Sci ’10, went to high school in Calgary and wrote the Alberta Diploma exams in grade 12. She said standardized testing provides a level playing field for the province’s post-secondary applicants.

“I believe that it is a way of taking all Alberta students … and making it an even score for everyone so if the university were to look at 10 different students they would know that all students had gone through the same testing,” she said.

Wynne said although the tests may have lowered her final mark a little bit, she noticed a difference between herself and her non-tested Ontario counterparts when she arrived at Queen’s.

“I was more prepared for university than some people from Ontario,” she said. “I think people from Ontario … had a longer period of time to bring up their marks. I think initially for them it was more of a shock.”

Standardized tests give high school students a goal to work toward all year, helping them motivate themselves, Wynne said.

Ontario’s standardized tests, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), take place in grades three, six and nine. An additional literacy test is administered in grade 10. There is no standard exam for graduating secondary students.

Patricia MacNeil, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Education, said although the EQAO tests provide valuable information on improving the education system, there are no plans to institute testing in grade 12.

MacNeil added thar students have different learning styles that aren’t necessarily conducive to rigorous testing.

“There’s concern about equity in the system and how it advantages and disadvantages students in their learning styles.”

MacNeil said rising grades in Ontario high schools can be attributed to funding from the government in key areas.

“[Marks have risen] because of the funding that’s been put into the system, I would hope.”

MacNeil said the Ministry develops policy on other ways to ensure a province-wide standard.

“We provide curriculum policy documents for each course. There’s what’s called an achievement chart with criteria for four levels of achievement, and there are province-wide exemplars. We also do a lot of work in a very face-to-face fashion. We help teachers go through these documents and understand what they mean to our students.

Students don’t need a standard test to be measured fairly against one another, MacNeil said.

“It’s about understanding what a grade is. … What does a level four in grade 10 math look like? That’s the ministry’s role.”

—With files from Angela Hickman

See next Tuesday’s Journal for a look at the graduate school application process.

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