Thousands of students received unsettling news this fall regarding the rigour of their high school grades. They learned that at least one university in Ontario — the University of Waterloo — assesses new engineering applicants partially on the basis of which high school they attended and not solely on their grades.
By tracking high school students’ graduating averages and comparing them against their first-year university GPA, the university was able to determine the average percentage drop of students from different schools when they moved to university.
Schools that exceeded the provincial average drop (in this case more than 16.3 per cent) were flagged — so that grade inflation was considered for their students during the admissions process.
In practical terms, this means that high school students with an identical graduating average from different schools are not considered to be the same in the eyes of this university. They use an “adjustment factor” as one mechanism to “level the field” in program admissions.
The trouble with grade inflation
Educators have been studying grade inflation for decades. However, this recent news suggests serious fairness issues may become a pervasive feature of our education system. It alerts us to the fact that some students, presumably from high schools with more generous grading, have a false sense of their academic ability which may lead to a rude awakening at university.
An inflated sense of one’s academic achievement is problematic and will become worse if a correction to the system is not forthcoming. Starting university is difficult enough without anxiety and frustration from excessive drops in first year grades.
Even more disconcerting is the prospect that a student, who had the misfortune of attending a high school with more rigorous grading procedures, may have lost out on a spot in a coveted university program — to a peer with slightly higher, inflated grades.
In the province of Ontario, where education is largely publicly funded, schools should present equitable opportunities for learning with grades that reliably reflect student achievement. This is the first “fundamental principle” of Growing Success — Ontario’s 2010 provincial assessment and evaluation policy document.
Similar policy statements exist in nearly every province and territory. Clearly, the use of adjustment factors suggests Ontario, and likely all Canadian provinces, have work to do in supporting grading and assessment in schools.
Standardized assessment is not a fix
Perhaps the simplest solution to this problem is to emulate other jurisdictions around the world and rely on standardized tests to make decisions about post-secondary admission.
This can be very appealing as it eliminates variability between teachers, schools, districts and provinces — so that students are judged against one another in a reliable fashion.
Unfortunately, standardized admissions tests, such as the SAT used in the United States, have their own flaws. Such tests have been shown to have significant gender and racial or cultural biases, among other measurement issues.
Similarly, the use of the SAT or related measures does not necessarily reduce grade inflation at the high school level, as the evidence suggests that grade inflation continues within universities and colleges in the U.S. and Canada.
External standardized measures also diminish the importance of daily classroom assessment strategies and their power to positively influence student learning.
In fact, a broad group of “assessment for learning” strategies — such as questioning techniques, feedback without grades, peer assessment, self-assessment and the formative use of summative assessments — have been shown to have a significant positive impact on student learning, regardless of school district and jurisdiction, within Canada and internationally.
Teachers unprepared for fair grading
How do we navigate this tension within classroom-based assessment, which can both effectively support learning but also contribute to detrimental grade inflation?
The solution rests within universities across Canada, which are largely responsible for the training and education of teachers. At the heart of this issue is teachers’ competency to effectively use assessment to support student learning and to accurately report on that learning — a competency we call “assessment literacy.”
The research shows that teachers feel largely unprepared for assessment in schools, with new teachers feeling particularly vulnerable. So we must find ways to effectively prepare teachers — so that they are better able to make fair assessment and grading decisions.
Both pre-service teacher education programs and in-service professional learning opportunities are sites for enhancing teacher assessment literacy.
While pre-service teacher education programs have increased levels of direct instruction in the area of assessment over the past five years, there appears to be a need for additional work. Importantly, this must extend out of the classroom and into the field — both during initial teacher placements and through professional development later in a teacher’s career.
Impetus for change
The grade inflation problem requires a long-term educational change initiative. And this requires commitment from across institutions, provinces, school boards and ministries of education.
One must concede that there is always going to be some variability across schools as teachers must exercise their professional judgement when arriving at final grades. Grading is inherently a subjective evaluation of assessment evidence.
However, the key is to ensure teachers have the skills and knowledge to ensure their evaluations are reliable and fair for their students — in relation to provincial curriculum expectations.
Unless we — university programs, ministries of education and school districts — better support teachers’ assessment literacy then we will continue to see the negative effects of grade inflation across our educational systems.
With enough data, one can envision adjustment factors across all provinces, universities and specific programs. But this solution does not address the root cause of the problem.
Perhaps the recent news — and the knowledge that universities might be partially “correcting” for inflated students’ grades — could be the impetus we need for a conversation in schools across Canada. And this could enable us to better support our teachers in student assessment.
Louis Volante is Professor of Education at Brock University, Christopher DeLuca is an Associate Professor at Queen's University