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Posts Tagged ‘Grade Inflation’

Mr. Zero to Hero: Alberta Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, May 2012

Suspending Alberta diploma exams in October and November 2020 is understandable in the midst of a global pandemic, but it will have unintended consequences. Replacing exams with sound, reliable, standards-based and replicable alternative forms of summative assessment is a formidable challenge. Taking a longer-term view, it will most likely only exacerbate the gradual and well-documented slide in the province of Alberta’s graduation standards.

While some students and the parents retained the right to write exams, the die is cast and it may also signal the death knell for final exams in a province once hailed for having Canada’s best education system. Eliminating final exams, as demonstrated in my new book The State of the System, has hidden, longer-term consequences, significantly contributing to the ‘big disconnect’ between rising student attainment (i.e., graduation rates and averages) and stagnating or declining achievement.

Critics of exams contend that formal, time-limited assessments cause stress and can affect student well-being. Such claims are disputed by Canadian teen mental health experts, including Stan Kutcher and Yifeng Wei, as well as cognitive scientists like Erin Maloney who cite evidence-based research demonstrating that tests and exams are examples of the “normal stress” deemed essential to healthy human development.

Sound student evaluation is based upon a mix of assessment strategies, including standardized tests and examinations. Testing remains a critical piece, countering more subjective forms of assessment. UK student assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou, puts it this way: “Tests are inhuman – and that is what is good about them.”

While teacher-made and evaluated assessments appear, on the surface, to be more gentle and fairer than exams, such assessments tend to be more impressionistic, not always reliable, and can produce outcomes less fair to students. They are also laden with potential biases.

A rather extensive 2015 student assessment literature review, conducted by Professor Rob Coe at Durham University, identifies the typical biases. Compared to standardized tests, teacher assessment tends to exhibit biases against exceptional students, specifically those with special needs, challenging behaviour, language difficulties, or personality types different than their teacher. Teacher-marked evaluations also tend to reinforce stereotypes, such as boys are better at math or racialized students underperform in school.

Grade inflation has been an identified and documented concern in high schools since the 1980s, long before the current pandemic education crisis. Two Canadian sociologists, James Cote and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues (2007), pinpointed the problem of high school students being “given higher grades for less effort” and expecting the same in Ontario universities. One authoritative study, produced at Durham University in the UK, demonstrated that an ‘A’ grade in 2009 was roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980.

What has happened to Alberta high school graduation standards? Back in 2011, Maclean’s magazine ranked Alberta as Canada’s best system of education based upon the performance of its graduating students. With compulsory provincial exams in place in the core subjects, some 20 per cent of Alberta’s Grade 12 students achieved an ‘A’ average, compared to roughly 40 per cent of students across Ontario high schools.

Grading standards in Alberta were demonstrably more rigorous than those in Ontario and other provinces. The University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts described Ontario high schools as being engaged in “an arms race of ‘A’s.’ A 2011 University of Saskatoon admissions study of 12,000 first-year university students’ grades reported that Alberta high school graduates dropped 6.4 percentage points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for those from other provinces. In 2017-18, a leaked University of Waterloo admissions study revealed that the average Ontario student dropped 16 per cent.

“No fail’ and ‘no zero’ student assessment policies proliferated in the early 2000s and most of the resistance stemmed from secondary school teachers, particularly in Alberta. Senior grade subject teachers in Mathematics and Science were in the forefront of the underground battles over teachers’ autonomy in the classroom. Constraining teachers from assigning “zeros’ for incomplete or missing work proved to be the biggest bone of contention.

It flared up in Alberta in May 2012 when Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval, a thirty-three-year veteran with an unblemished teaching record, was suspended, then fired, for continuing to award zeroes, refusing to comply with a change in school assessment policy. It all came to a head when the school board’s computer-generated reports substituted blanks for zeroes. An Alberta tribunal found that Dorval gave students fair warning, and that his methods worked because he had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.” The previously obscure Alberta Physics teacher went from “zero to hero” when he was exonerated, but it proved to be a small victory on the slippery slope to dumbed-down standards.

Grade inflation seeped into Alberta high schools when that province moved away from weighting exams at 50 per cent (to 30 per cent) of the final subject grade. In June 2016, under the new policy, 96 per cent of Math 30-1 students were awarded a passing grade, compared to 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam, a gap of 25 percentage points. The same pattern was evident in Nova Scotia up until June 2012 when the province eliminated all Grade 12 provincial exams. Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 percent to 92.5 percent in 2014–15

While far from perfect, exams do provide not only a more rigorous form of summative assessment, but a fairly reliable benchmark of how students perform across a provincial system. It is, after all, next-to-impossible to establish comparability or assessment benchmarks to assess the alternatives such as uneven and highly idiosyncratic ‘demonstrations of learning.’

The Alberta system, once rated Canada’s best on the basis of its graduation standards, is gradually losing its edge. Suspending the diploma exams in 2020-21 may turn out to be a temporary blip or stand as further evidence of an abandonment of more rigorous graduation standards.

Why did Alberta lose its undisputed status as Canada’s best education system? How important were final exams in solidifying that province’s graduation standards? What is the connection between final diploma exams and two key performance indicators — grade inflation and graduation rates? Why have the universities remained relatively silent while evidence accumulates testifying to the softening of graduation standards?

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An April 2019 study, Academic Skill Deficiencies in four Ontario universities, has sent shock waves through the Canadian K-12 school system.  That study, spearheaded by two leading sociologists, York University’s J. Paul Grayson and Western University’s James Cote, has shone fresh light on a previously identified problem — growing evidence that secondary schools feeding universities are falling well short in addressing students’ skills deficiencies. What’s most surprising is that, over the past 15-years, dramatically rising graduation rates have not translated into improvements in students’ academic skills.

First year university and college professors have long complained about the quality of students entering their institutions.  This study, conducted at four Ontario universitiesYork, Western, Waterloo and Toronto, which together enrol 41 per cent of Ontario undergraduates — confirms much of the accumulated evidence. The researchers found that “only about 44 per cent of students felt they had the generic skills needed to do well in their academic studies, 41 per cent could be classified as at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills, and 16 per cent lacked almost all the skills needed for higher learning.”

This study was borne out of the sheer frustration experienced by Grayson and his York University colleague Robert Kenedy in trying to teach undergraduate Social Science students at York University. Their bias was clear – far too many appeared mostly unprepared for the demands of higher education, particularly in critical thinking, academic research and competent writing.  In late 2017 they surveyed 22,000 students from all disciplines and levels of study enrolled in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York. Their questionnaire posed 50 questions to students of all demographic backgrounds. The key skill questions focused on writing ability, test-taking, analysis, time and group management, research, giving presentations and elemental numeracy. A year later, the same survey was performed at the three other universities cited. The results were remarkably consistent in all four universities.

University student reading in classroom

Such research findings shock Ontario educational leadership because they run completely counter to the prevailing assumption that Ontario’s K-12 school system ranks among the best in the world. Academic skill deficiencies of secondary school graduates, all too evident to first year university instructors and employers, too often escape the attention of those overseeing the system and PSE admissions offices looking to fill seats. It’s aptly named – the “big disconnect” –– referring to the growing gap between high school attainment and actual, demonstrable student achievement.

Critics of today’s “graduate everyone” school systems find confirmation in this study of their oft-repeated claim that the secondary-school system is “failing to meet basic pedagogical objectives” and “failing to cull incompetent students.” That is not really new because it was all flagged a decade ago in two academic critiques, co-authored by James Cote,  Ivory Tower Blues (2007) and Lowering Higher Education (2011). Back then, professors expressed grave concerns about students unable to accept criticism or remain engaged and conceded that they had dumbed down their courses and reduced the frequency of tests and assignments. What the most recent study shows is that not much has changed.

Far too many of today’s secondary school graduates are not only unprepared for university studies, but panic-stricken by the academic expectations.  One of Grayson and Kenedy’s students provided a sad example of this latest iteration of the problem: “IM IN FIRST YEAR AND IM DOING SO BAD AND IM SO SCARED BC IM FINDING IT REALLY HARD TO MANAGE MY TIME AND MY ANXIETY HAS GOTTEN SO BAD AND IDK WHAT TO DO AND IM SCARED OF GETTING KICKED OUT AND IM JUST SCARED.”

Two new dimensions have emerged that deserve more serious research and analysis: the radical differences in the quality of among secondary schools and the impact of academic acceleration programs, most notably the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. From what we know, university admissions offices now “rate high schools” on a top secret quality index and much prefer graduates applying with transcripts requiring far more rigorous academic courses. Both trends are indicative of a further ‘devaluation’ of the standard provincial graduation diploma.

Today’s students applying to university tend to have significantly inflated grades. That is why some universities do attempt to assess the relative quality of students graduating from various high schools, comparing incoming grades with those at the end of first year. In October 2018, a confidential report prepared for the University of Waterloo Engineering Program was uncovered that documented the existence of an “adjustment factor” used to determine which students were admitted into their top ranked, highly competitive program.

The downward adjustment factors applied to final marks from Ontario high schools averaged 16 percent, ranging from a low of 9.9 per cent (L’Amoreaux Collegiate, Agincourt) to a high of 27.5 per cent (Grimsby SS).  Students graduating from some other provinces fared worse;   New Brunswick applicants saw their marks downgraded by 24.5 per cent, meaning students applying with a 90 per cent average would be credited with only a 65.5 per cent by the University of Waterloo.

The academic skills deficits identified by the April 2019 study do not seem to apply to students applying with IB mark transcripts. Students graduating with the full International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) are the most sought-after by Canadian universities, particularly in highly selective university programs leading to professional studies. In the case of Nova Scotia, IB university applicants now have their grades raised so as not to penalize them in competition with students from regular, non-IB high schools.

Four top Canadian universities, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Alberta actively seek students applying with IB graduation transcripts. Students admitted with the IB Diploma do perform better in first year of university. Entry level grades are maintained because IB grades based upon IB external examinations are far more reliable as better predictors of four-year college outcomes.

One authoritative 2014 study, conducted by Andrew Arida for the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that IB admissions candidates possess more highly developed academic skills than those from regular non-IB high schools. They are particularly strong in reading comprehension (+25%), mastering research skills (+ 26%), making presentations ( +25%), clarity and effectiveness in writing ( +20%), and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity (+13 %). This advantage is sustained to the end of first year university.  Those IB graduates were also more likely to participate in volunteering, join university clubs, and assist by tutoring other students.

Why are such a high proportion of today’s university-bound students in Ontario and elsewhere across Canada showing academic skills deficits?  What’s happened to the value of a secondary school graduation diploma in university, college and presumably the workplace? Why do provincial ministries, university leaders and school administrators greet reports on academic skills deficits with a deafening silence? Who is monitoring and addressing the identified inequities in levels of secondary school preparedness for higher education? Without academic acceleration programs like the IB, would matters be worse? 

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Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “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.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament? 

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