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Posts Tagged ‘High School Standards’

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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Bridge building can provide a rather unconventional source of educational reform insights. All bridges built over water –and constructed with the expert advice of a construction engineer — need “a foundation which is rested on the bed.”  Solid foundations, therefore, are critical to successful bridge-building projects.

School, college and workplace are far too often islands separated by hard to traverse expanses of water. Building bridges for high school leavers involves far more than simply clearing a path and creating easier off-ramps. It should involve paying far more attention to the cardinal principle of bridge building science — sound foundations matter.

BridgeBuildingPhotoA recent Nova Scotia Transition Task Force report, From School to Success: Clearing the Path, released June 21, 2016, looks well-intended, but appears to have missed the most critical piece — shoring-up the foundations on both sides of the bridge.  With youth unemployment hovering above the Canadian national average, the task force focused mostly on repairing the bridges, providing more program supports, and better career counselling.  It even proposed that high school graduates take a “gap year” on their own, presumably to acquire the requisite job-ready skills and work ethic.

How well prepared students were for success in college and the workplace was not really addressed in the Task Force report. When pressed to explain what employers were looking for, the notable silence was filled by one Task Force member. Andrea Marsman of the Nova Scotia Black Educators Association. “There are issues around deadlines and attendance and work ethic,” she told CBC Nova Scotia News. “They were saying that over the past several years they’ve seen a decline of respect for those particular principles of work ethic.”

Boring into the report, the problem with the educational foundation of the K-12 level pillar comes into sharper relief.  While high school graduation rates soar above 85%, only four in 10 university students complete their degree within four years. Thirty per cent never complete their university studies at all. At the community college level, 32 per cent don’t come back after their first year of study.

Raising graduation rates has been the priority in Nova Scotia , Ontario, and elsewhere for the past decade or so.  School promotion policies and “no fail” student assessment practices have significantly raised retention levels.  In spite of this, about five per cent of Nova Scotia students drop out in grade 11, unable to collect a graduation diploma. Those who do leave before graduation, it is clear, are totally unprepared for the daily discipline/grind and rigors of the workplace.

The Nova Scotia Task Force report simply accepts the current status quo — trying to help high school dropouts to graduate. While it is true that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, and college dropouts are have 3 % higher unemployment rates, the report does not really confront the the quality and preparedness of students leaving the system.  Instead, the Task Force recommended making it easier to graduate and funding more school-to-workplace bridge programs.

BridgingNSedReviewThe Transition Task Force recommendations completely flew in the face of the most recent evidence on employer satisfaction with Nova Scotia student graduates.  In the Nova Scotia Education Review survey, released in October 2014, only 38% of the 2,309 community members surveyed felt that students were “well prepared” for college or university, and fewer still, some 18%, felt they were well prepared for the workforce (p. 35).  Only one of three of the community respondents found students “well prepared” to move onto the next grade, so that is hardly an earthshaking revelation (p. 31).

The answers to the critical questions of preparedness and what today’s workplace demands may not be squarely addressed in the Nova Scotia report, but they are in a pertinent American study, produced in January 2014 by Bentley University researchers.  Just as in Nova Scotia and other provinces, the business sector concerns that today’s college graduates aren’t properly prepared are not going away.  What is changing is the willingness of U.S. colleges and universities to grapple with and address the core issue – improving the core competencies, skills, and work ethic of graduates.

The PreparedU Millennial Preparedness Survey questioned 3,000 respondents across nine audiences and examined skills, traits, use of technology, workplace attitudes and expectations, along with opinions of executives about millennials and vice versa, and much more. It directly addressed the preparedness problem and found a surprising consensus around the source of the problem – a lack of focus on developing strong character, determination, resilience and work ethic. It also found students’ self-perceptions, fostered in schools, to be out of line with those of employers.  Most alarming of all, businesses surveyed found graduates unprepared or unemployable, but seemingly confident in their own abilities.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed U.S. business leaders reported recent graduates they have hired would get a “C” or lower for preparation, if graded. However, they didn’t believe the fault rested entirely with students. Many businesses claimed that “soft skills” were highly valued, but their hiring decisions demonstrated otherwise, showing a clear preference for those with “hard skills,” such as technology training or apprenticeship certificates.

Just over half of business decision-makers and 43 percent of corporate recruiters surveyed said the business community itself deserves a “C” or lower on how well they are preparing recent grads for their first jobs. They also acknowledged that many businesses are not training new hires like they used to, leaving career colleges and private companies to fill the gaps.

School-college-workplace bridges will not be built in a day, nor will they be repaired by tinkering with, or extending, existing programs. Education department reports, like the June 2016 Nova Scotia Task Force study, tend to avoid going to the root of the preparedness problem. Looking at the membership of the Transitions Task Force, it is easy to see why.  Of the seventeen appointed members, the vast majority have a stake in the current system, only two were from business or industry and only one was a teacher in the K-12 school system.

What can school authorities wrestling with school-college-workplace transitions learn from bridge building science?  Why is the preparedness problem so difficult to tackle?  How can you assess the preparedness of high school and college graduates without systematically surveying job seekers or prospective employers? 

 

 

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