Grade Inflation: A Balloon that Popped

In the later half of 2018, the list containing all the “adjustment factors” to adjust admission averages for each Ontario secondary school. It was well known for decades that the University of Waterloo used such a system but it was not known how schools ranked on this list. However, this is no longer the case as of September 2018, the adjustment factors of each high school was released by the engineering admissions department. Our very own Waterloo Collegiate Institute received an adjustment factor of 14, well under the majority of Ontario schools who ranked 16.3. The worst offender was Grimsby S.S. with an adjustment factor of 27.5. This adjustment factor is calculated each year by taking into account the difference between a student’s admission average and their first year marks.

Click on a school to see board information and adjustment factors for all years available.

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Source: Global News

But how does mark inflation occur?

According to Troy Vasiga, the Dean of Admission for the Department of Math at the University of Waterloo, “Students or teachers or parents find out what the cut off is and then they tell that to the teacher, ‘I want to get into this program and this is the cut off’ ” he goes on “then the teacher says so then OK, you’re a good student so therefore I’ll raise your mark to get into program X.  As that happens over time, it will raise the cutoffs. There is also programs that can’t grow very quickly but demand does. For a program like computer science, we take in 300 students every year, but 10 years ago we had 9000 people applying, for that now have 60000. So if the point of marks are going to go up. I mean that’s not mark inflation in the sense that the cut off is going to rise, but that marks that are coming in from high schools seem to rise with our rising cut off averages.”

What can be done to decrease mark inflation?

“One possibility is to have a standard exit exam for high schools for each course. So you would have a standardized final English test, you have a calculus test that’s standard and taken all on the same day across the province.”

Is this system listing by high school fair to the individual student?

“I think this is a Ministry of Education problem. So is it fair? Probably not because we at the University have to view a mark as a mark. In the teaching document that is given to teachers it says this is the rubric. In each section it says this is what this mark in this range signifies. You have this aspect, you have this understanding and so on. That should be consistently applied across the province.”

What other factors are considered other than marks?

“OK, so it depends on the University and the program. For pure science and mathematics in Waterloo we look at your grades, applicant information form, and Euclid/CISMC score. So AIF is like where you tell us about yourself in terms of your extracurricular activity that’s given a number and then we compute your average a bunch of different ways. Like you have to take 6 grade 12 courses, a requirement of English and the two required math courses. Then we look at your AIF score, add that in in some way and then we look at your Euclid score. In the past years we’ve only used the Euclid score as a kind of tie breaker in the borderline. There are students who still got into our programs that didn’t write the math contest but writing certainly helps.”

Why were the adjustment factors released? Was UW trying to send a message?

“Like the engineering ones? You should ask engineering! *laughs* Apparently, I mean it again and this is what engineering would say. It was meant to be internal just to engineering. So they kept track of this information internally apparently schools could ask. So “I’m at school X can you tell me my factor for my school?” and they would tell that school. We do this transformation but it certainly was never publicly viewable. Then Global News asked 3 years ago, “Can we see this?” and engineering said, “No.” they filed a freedom of information request that was accepted. So they had to release it and they ended up releasing, so engineering didn’t release it like willingly.”

To end it off what kind of message do you think this adjustment list sends?

“I think it does raise some interesting questions about what to do. I actually don’t think it’s fair to apply that same transformation software to the individuals but I agree that it is a large problem but it affects individual students poorly. What else can we do about it as a university? I think you need an exit test or some way of insuring “do you know this material” and we’re gonna use that to make decisions about your admission.”

Conclusion

While standardized tests, looking at our American neighbours in the south, may not be the solution best suited to deal with mark inflation in Ontario. In the current season, as students apply and receive admissions from universities, one conclusion can be reached. From both the perspective of the high school students and the Universities, mark inflation is unfair to the individual.