Op-Ed: The Dangers of Mark Inflation

As the school year slowly inches to a close, pressure continues to build on senior students.

In the next month, students will receive their second semester grades and for many these are merely four more marks on their transcript. But for Grade 12 and fifth year students, these marks may be the key to their success or the cause of their failure.

For students in their senior years of high school, marks take on a new importance. One set of numbers decides their acceptance to or rejection from postsecondary institutions. Personally, I am planning on attending university after high school and, as these entrance averages continue to rise, the I feel increasing pressure to achieve higher and higher marks. Some could argue that despite students’ quality of work remaining constant, mark averages needed to gain admission into a postsecondary institution continue to rise.

The origins of mark inflation leave great room for debate. Alan Slavin, a physics professor at Trent University, cites the new curriculum introduced in 1997 as the main issue behind mark inflation. Slavin writes that “the new curriculum was so content-heavy that it greatly limited the amount of time available for developing analytical and conceptual-understanding skills from kindergarten on.” The curriculum was altered to place greater emphasis on content rather than critical thinking skills and, as a result, pure memorization and the regurgitation of facts onto a page has become the standard testing method, a method that some argue makes it far easier to achieve astronomically high marks.

In my opinion, the change in the curriculum is not the only factor contributing to mark inflation. The change in societal values throughout the past few decades has dramatically altered the student-teacher and parent-teacher relationship regarding students’ results.

In today’s society, it seems that students carry a sense of self-entitlement while parents have become increasingly unwilling to expose their children to failure. Students expect teachers to tell them exactly what they must study, the number of questions on an upcoming test, and the types of questions they will be asked. If there is a question on a test that requires students to think critically or combine concepts they have learned, students cry foul and accuse the teacher, most often behind their back, of creating an unfair test.

Furthermore, the concept of failure and accountability have both vanished from the school system. Students cannot fail assignments, nor can late marks be deducted from assignments. In essence, the concept of deadlines does not exist. As a result, there is the perception that students who would barely have an average above 50% (if zeroes and late marks existed), may manage to achieve an 80% average. Unfortunately these inflated these averages will quickly decline after students realize their university professors will not accept an essay that is four months late.

The effects of mark inflation are predominantly felt by students with higher averages going into university. In first year, most of their averages will decrease significantly and studies show that many of these students will drop out as a result. In my experience, many students face failure because they relied on pure memorization instead of truly learning to think critically.

In 2010, Brock University published a study that found that “students entering university with a 90 per cent or higher [average] experienced a drop of 11.9 [per cent].” This drop can have far-reaching effects on the mental health of students who have always been in the top percentile of their class and tie their identity and sense of value to these numbers. These students are no longer achieving the top marks and, therefore, may begin to doubt their abilities, their goals, and even their self-worth.

Despite all of this, the answer to mark inflation remains elusive. Many solutions have been brought forward, including province-wide grade 12 examinations similar to those in Alberta. However, even then, each teacher may prepare their students in a different way, which could create unfair disadvantages. I do not believe the Ontario Ministry of Education will ever be able to completely standardize education, but they can reinstate late marks and return to teachers the power to hold students accountable. Perhaps then students will finally learn how to meet deadlines and the consequences of not doing so, discover failure, and earn grades that are truly reflective of their abilities and efforts.

Editorial: Maggie Sutherland

Photography: Michael Frazer

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