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High-school students are shocked to discover how much their marks drop. (Parpalea Catalin/Thinkstock)
High-school students are shocked to discover how much their marks drop. (Parpalea Catalin/Thinkstock)

Campus Life

High-school grade inflation balloon ready to pop Add to ...

Students across Canada are receiving admission letters to Canadian universities this spring. After the excitement and the celebrations, students and their families should start preparing for a shock.

Grades will drop in university – especially for students who are at the top of their high-school class.

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High-school grades are no longer accurate assessments of students’ learning. Grades are pushed up, especially in senior years, by increasingly high entrance requirements for university programs. The problem with grade inflation is particularly acute for elite university programs, which require grades well over 90 per cent for admission.

I worked hard in high school to get into the University of Toronto, specifically the Trinity One program, a first-year program with an entrance average of 95 per cent that offers students seminar courses with only 25 students. Accustomed to As and A pluses I was disheartened when I first arrived at U of T to learn that 67 was an average grade and A plus, at least in the social sciences, was almost unheard of.

I soon learned that in most classes, an 85 (4.0) was the highest grade that would be awarded, which effectively meant that one would need the highest possible grade on every assignment to get a 4.0 in a course.

This is not just my experience, it’s the reality for students Canada wide. According to a 2010 report from Brock University, students entering university with a 90 per cent or higher average in high school experienced a drop of 11.9 per cent. Students with high-school marks in the 60-79 per cent range had a 4.4 per cent drop.

High-school teachers want the students they care about to get into good schools. So they face tacit pressure in the form of being aware of what grades it takes to get into various universities and programs. There is also overt pressure from students who ask for higher grades at the end of a year, as well as parents, who demand higher grades for their children, attributing any deficiency in their child’s marks as the teacher’s fault.

Another problem with grade inflation is that, for students in the system, it’s difficult to realize there is a problem. No one wants to think that maybe their grades aren’t deserved, that maybe they aren’t an A student after all.

Unfortunately, there are some hard truths that get concealed when everyone has an A. Not everyone is meant to go to university, and students can discover that early, or they can discover that in a few years, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars in debt. There is a shortage of apprenticeships in Canada, and the number of students who are pursuing college education after being unable to find work with a university degree is rising annually.

Furthermore, students want to do well, and will flock to classes where it is easier to get higher grades. In my high school, Grade 12 English was notorious for being particularly difficult. Many students would take it in summer school, to avoid the English department entirely. Grade 12 International Business was well known for being easy, and so competition to get in was fierce.

To a certain extent, we are locked in a vicious cycle. Universities keep publishing ever-higher admissions averages, and high schools keep raising their marks accordingly.

As of 2007, more than 60 per cent of Ontario high school graduates had an A average, and 10 per cent had a A+ average. That’s up from 40 per cent in 1980, according to Western University professor James Côté.

High schools need to have some kind of standardization. There needs to be clarity on what an A is, what a B is, etc. Universities can play a role in this process too, by urging high schools to have clearer assessments of students’ knowledge as a prerequisite for admission.

There is an attempt at standardization within high schools, where all students in say, Grade 11 chemistry, write the same exam. Between high schools though, huge discrepancies remain.

Until there is standardization, high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low-achieving students will keep being pushed from grade to grade, and students’ grades will drop when they reach university.

At its core, the problem with grade inflation is that it does not accurately assess students’ learning. The statistical evidence is clear; students who have high grades coming out of high school are the ones that drop most dramatically in the first year of university. We can all do more to reign in rampant grade inflation, and better prepare students for the university environment.

Zane Schwartz is one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20. He served as President, Public Board, of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association from 2010 to 2011.

Campus Life looks at issues affecting students, teachers and faculty in the education system.

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