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The Globe and Mail

How to stop grade inflation: make students take final exams

When I graduated from an Ontario high school in 1964, the percentage of students awarded an Ontario scholarship was probably about 5 per cent and you needed an 80 per cent average on eight out of nine courses in Grade 13. Earning an Ontario scholarship was a real accomplishment, and every successful student received a scholarship of $400 (real money in those days). A few years later, the provincial exit exams (known as "departmentals") were abolished, and the percentage of students receiving Ontario scholarships immediately began to rise.

By the eighties something like 40 per cent of students were getting Ontario Scholarships, and these days it's more than 60 per cent of students.

As a result of this grade inflation, the prestigious International Baccalaureate program is being forced to inflate its own grades to give its students a fair chance to gain admittance at the university of their choice and win scholarships. Without the discipline of external exit exams, individual schools can award any marks they wish and, as we have seen, they wish to award ever-higher marks.

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With no external standards, it is impossible to compare the marks of students in different schools, and universities are flying blind when it comes to admissions. The result is that many woefully-unprepared students gain university admittance only to flunk out by Christmas or to see their first-year marks drop by more than 10 per cent. Not only is this hard on the students financially, it also crushes their spirits.

External exit exams yield more objective marks and discourage grade inflation. More importantly, they also enhance student achievement.

Professor John Bishop of Cornell University carried out a number of studies comparing the achievement of students in jurisdictions with external exit exams to the achievement of students in jurisdictions without external exit exams. In every case, Dr. Bishop found that the students in jurisdictions with external exit exams learned more.

In his research, he included a comparison of the achievement of students in Canadian provinces with external exit exams to the achievement of students in provinces without such exams. It turned out that Canadians are no exception – the students in provinces with external exit exams learn more. Similar comparisons between OECD countries found that the students in countries with external exit exams did better by approximately .15 of a standard deviation.

Virtually all rigorous courses have external exit exams – for example, the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses, Most professions – lawyers, doctors, accountants and so forth require their students to pass an external exit exam before they can be certified to practice.

We live in a society that requires people to pass external examinations to demonstrate that they have mastered necessary skills and knowledge. You can't drive a car without passing an external examination. You can't become a hairdresser without passing an external examination. You can't become a Canadian citizen or an automobile mechanic or a dental hygienist without passing an external examination.

It's high time that high school students too were required to write an external examination before being allowed to graduate.

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Malkin Dare is president of the Society for Quality Education.

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