Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Mark 'inflation' skews Grade 12 results

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.05.03
EDITION: Final
SECTION: News
PAGE: A5
BYLINE: Sarah Schmidt
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Photo: Malcolm Taylor, CanWest News Services / RetiredHamilton-area educator Marian Springer says it's a chicken-and-egg argument as to how the practice of 'mark inflation' began. But with the pressure from every angle for higher marks, students are the ultimate losers.

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Mark 'inflation' skews Grade 12 results: From easy 'bird' courses that almost guarantee high grades to 'marks mills' prep schools that claim their smaller class size results in an up to 20-per-cent gain in grade levels, many Canadian educators are concerned that college-entry grades are becoming almost meaningless, writes Sarah Schmidt.

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Ask any group of senior high school students hanging out after class, and they'll happily list the courses they take to boost their averages and the teachers they avoid because they drag their marks down.

"Canadian Family is the bird course," said one student at Lisgar Collegiate.

"It's an easy 80," added another.

At high schools across Canada, shrewd students can be found calculating their best chance of earning admission to university and winning scholarships. But with awareness increasing about grade inflation between schools -- and even within departments at the same school -- some educators are questioning the grading system on which post-secondary education institutions rely to accept or reject applicants.

A CanWest News Service survey of the grade distribution within departments at public high schools and between schools in comparable neighbourhoods with a high percentage of university-bound students shows there's reason to grumble.

In some cases where students are divided into different classes to take the same Grade 12 course, the grade differential exceeds 20 points within a single school -- proving it merits noting the grading reputations of teachers. And the point spread for schoolwide course averages is sometimes as large as 10 points between institutions serving comparable student populations.

Veteran educator Marian Springer doesn't need to see hard numbers to know there's a problem. She retired last year after a lengthy career in Hamilton, serving as a teacher, department head and guidance counsellor.

"I know anecdotally the mark inflation is just absurd. The mark inflation is unbelievable. When I graduated from high school, I was seventh ... and I was in the low 70s."

Today, the grading system looks very different, said Ms. Springer.

"Eighty per cent can be a very good student, but 80 per cent can also be a very weak student, or a mediocre student who picks the right courses, or found teachers who gave higher marks.

"We've had courses with a median of over 90 per cent. We would be barraged with students who wanted to take those university placement courses. That's another form of mark inflation -- students trying to pad up their average with one or two of these courses."

Many school boards don't track grading patterns. Only half of the 10 boards surveyed were able to provide complete grading information for course sections in English, math and social sciences at select high schools for the 2003/04 academic year.

Citing technological challenges, human resource limitations, or confidentiality concerns, public school boards in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Regina were unable to meet the request. Public school boards in Winnipeg and Toronto provided detailed grading data, as did Catholic boards in Toronto and Hamilton.

In Ottawa, students enrolled in a Grade 12 philosophy course section at Lisgar Collegiate earned an average mark of 94 per cent last year. Students weren't nearly as successful at Sir Robert Borden, where the average mark in the sole Grade 12 philosophy class was 67 per cent.

Meanwhile, at Glebe Collegiate, students in a Grade 12 economics class scored an average of 91 per cent. At Canterbury High School, students enrolled in the same course earned a respectable, but much lower average of 75 per cent.

Within individual schools, students enrolled in different course sections can also see huge differentials in their grades. Some classes could be stacked with exceptionally strong students, or it could be they are taught by teachers with more lax standards.

At Glebe Collegiate, the average in Grade 12 English classes ranged from 58.3 to 75.1 per cent last year. At Sir Robert Borden, the range was 60.1 to 80 per cent.

The gap in overall school averages for Grade 12 courses between schools where there is room for subjective marking is another matter.

For example, North Toronto and Lawrence Park aren't far from one another and serve very similar student populations. Yet, there was a seven-point difference in the overall average mark in the Grade 12 economics course last year: At Lawrence Park, the overall average was 81 per cent compared to 74 per cent at nearby North Toronto.

Ashley Waltman, principal of North Toronto Collegiate, admits the grade gap with Lawrence Park in the same Grade 12 university-placement course is notable.

"That seems like a differential that I'd be concerned about," he said. "The question is, 'where is the problem?'"

Mr. Waltman, for one, lays the blame on "marks mills."

"What we have seen is the proliferation of marks mills or credit mills, where a student has a history of getting 55 or 60 in English, and then goes through private school for Grade 12 and gets a 95, and claims smaller class size is the reason for the success. We know this just isn't the case."

Mary Daniel, principal of Kitsilano High School in Vancouver, said the schools in the Vancouver board do not have the technological capacity to gather such detailed grading information, and school officials do not have time to go through hard copy records to compile the data.

But she is quick to point out teachers at her school are aware of the importance of consistent grading standards and work together to make sure the marking is fair.

"Absolutely, we're conscious of it. Our departments in the school make a point of doing grade-wide marks to make sure marking is consistent. ... We just have to remain vigilant about it," said Ms. Daniel.

Ms. Springer isn't nearly as optimistic. She says mark inflation is "very significant." She's just not sure what's behind the push.

"It's hard to say what's driving it when teachers start to inflate marks. It's almost like which comes first, the chicken or the egg. There's a lot of competition to get into university. There's pressure on teachers to give higher marks. When they give higher marks, the cutoff for university is higher."

Students ultimately lose in this grading game, said Ms. Springer.

"Often, to students, it doesn't become, 'What am I learning in my university admissions English course?' It's 'How can I get the highest mark?' ... I think that's one of the most disappointing things."

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