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One of my older brothers used to remark, with detectable sarcasm, how odd it was that, immediately after the old Grade 13 provincial exams (the "Departmentals") were dropped in the mid-1960s, the number of Ontario Scholars skyrocketed. Schools that had previously produced only one or two "A" students a year (and sometimes none at all) were now regularly producing five, 10 or even more, a sudden surge of brilliance that my brother found highly suspect. The connection he was implying - "no provincial exams, no meaningful standards" - stuck with me and seems well worth exploring again, in light of recent developments.

My attention was recently arrested by a local statistic: At my old high school, over a third of last year's Grade 12 graduating class made the Ontario Scholar list. Admittedly, this school is a good school in an educated area of town, but 33 per cent still seems a trifle high, certainly higher than the Grade 13 figures for my day. Suspicious, I poked around on the Internet, and found not just schools but entire school boards boasting of similar figures. The most striking example was the Toronto board, which boasted on its website recently of a 40-per-cent rate! (This result is indeed miraculous, given the high percentage of students in the Toronto system whose first language is not English, but we shall let that pass.)

More important, however, are the general numbers for all of Ontario. The statistics aren't readily available on the provincial Ministry of Education website, but I came across some figures gathered by education critic John Fitzgerald, who tells us that the percentage of Ontario Scholars rose from 3 per cent in 1966 to 30 per cent in 1996.

Combined with my examples of still higher recent figures, what does this upward curve mean?

It means that my brother was right. Since the dropping of the Departmentals, Ontario schools experienced steady grade inflation. This is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. Every alert parent, educator and university administrator knows that graduates' grades depend entirely on the personal standards of individual teachers and principals, standards which vary wildly across the province, and in the best case are still below the standards of the Departmental era. We have many more Ontario scholars now than we did forty years ago, for the very simple reason that now it is much easier to get an average of 80 per cent.

Before we condemn the teachers for lowering the standards, however, we have to keep in mind the current context. Students want to go on to higher education, and especially to university. From the 1950s until well into the 1970s, it was possible to get into many Canadian universities with only a middle "C" average, i.e., in modern terms, about 65 per cent. This, however, has not been the case for some time.

Universities have been steadily increasing their entrance standards, and the average grade required for university admission in Canada these days hovers between 80 and 84, depending upon the university and program.

In theory, students can get into some programs with a 75, but in practice, competition between the students means that figure is rarely high enough. Thus, if high-school teachers want their second-string students to have the same crack at university as they had in the 1960s, they have to give grades at least 10 per cent higher. So the teachers are not acting entirely out of neglect, but partly out of compassion.

Despite the best of intentions, their actions only exacerbate the problem. The more Ontario Scholars they crank out, the less the universities can trust high-school grades, and the more they will raise their entrance standards. This puts everyone into a chicken-and-egg feedback loop, from which there is no escape. Grades and entrance barriers rise higher and higher, with no end in sight.

This game serves no one. It lies to mediocre students by telling them they are bright; it destroys the universities' trust in all high-school marks; it puts pressure on teachers to grade their students dishonestly; and finally, it worries even the good students, who can never be sure what grades will be high enough for elite programs. This game must end, and we can end it.

The way to end it is to bite the bullet and admit that Ontario made an error 40 years ago. The only way of providing universities, parents and students with a consistent assessment of student knowledge and ability, and the only way of giving students realistic, achievable goals to shoot for, is to reinstate a province-wide set of examinations for graduating high-school students.

Of course, there are people who reject the solution of provincial exams. There are some parents, teachers, professors and others who, for purely ideological reasons, hate the very notion of having to meet a standard. And there are educators (at both the classroom and the curriculum development level) who fear examinations because the results might prove their own incompetence (for which some have been grossly overpaid for decades). But we cannot continue to sacrifice the integrity of our high-school and university systems in order to preserve the egos of these people. They have done enough damage. We must simply brush them aside, so that Ontario can return to the system it had prior to about 1967 - a system that produced, arguably, the highest educational standards in the world, and in which the words "I'm an Ontario Scholar" evoked admiration rather than a suppressed snort.

Cameron Wybrow has more than 25 years experience teaching at several Ontario universities and colleges.

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