Waterloo’s engineering program discounts grades from two Oakville schools

It ought to be no surprise that universities have learned over time a mark from one high school is not equivalent to one from another one. A recently available article in the Toronto Star flags Waterloo’s engineering programme, among the toughest to get into in Canada, as having developed an adjustment factor. Among those whose marks the programme discounts probably the most were two Oakville schools: King’s Christian Collegiate and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School. Shockingly, Toronto’s prestigious Upper Canada College also found itself singled out as needing a significant mark discount when evaluating applications.

Back in the 1960s, once the boomers who shaped the current Ontario were in high school, about 3% of students became Ontario scholars. Now it’s more than 60%. Kids may be smarter, and teaching could be better, but it is not believable that students leaving senior high school are that much more able. Clearly, good marks are much easier to obtain than they used to be, and in some schools more than others.

Higher marks result in a large amount of problems. It becomes very hard to distinguish between your best students when there are so many of them. Maybe even worse, students are led to believe they’re more prepared than they are actually and face sometimes substantial and life-changing disappointment if they get to post-secondary education.

This recent Maclean’s article gives an insight into what this can mean to students facing the truth of post-secondary standards, a few of whom determine they should not have been in the institution to begin with. Nevertheless, universities and colleges can simply raise their admission standards, which is what they will have done as mark inflation has run rampant across Ontario.

However, when that inflation is uneven in one school to another, it makes the post-secondary institutions’ job a lot more difficult. According to the Star’s article, Waterloo is rolling out its adjustment factor based on the performance of students from the given school in the initial year of their engineering programme as time passes. It has to have enough students to make the comparison meaningful and establish a pattern.

Before 1960s, province-wide exams, known as “departmentals,” contributed to the senior high school leaving marks of Ontario students. They were graded anonymously, after being shipped to Toronto, by teachers apart from those who had taught the students.

While Scholastic Aptitude Tests (now simply called SATs) in the United States assessed capability to learn, the departmental exams assessed achievement, which senior high school graduation marks generally represent. These exams were much like Advanced-level (A-level) exams in England, or Baccalaur�at exams in France, which continue to exist (as in most European countries), and in those countries produce 100% of the marks given to universities and colleges for admission. (The International Baccalaureate (IB) works on these principles and comes in Ontario. Many top international universities have greater confidence in such evaluations than in marks assigned by schools with that they have little or no experience.)

These exams are country-wide. Oakville Ontario in every schools, including parents homeschooling children, know that they are going to face these tests. This eliminates grade inflation in earlier years and in mid-year evaluation: grades that not truly represent the student’s potential will undoubtedly be found out in the end. Virtually every country has them except Canada: even america has the SAT to greatly help post-secondary institutions compare students’ capabilities whatever the school they attended.

The arguments against such exams are many. Students face plenty of pressure, and their future is determined by their performance in some three hour written exams. Such exams favour visual learners and may close the door for able students whose abilities will vary. You can find concerns about “teaching to the test”, limiting teachers’ abilities to explore topics and problem-solving techniques. Proponents explain that at some stage there will be such an evaluation to graduate from university or to gain a specialist qualification, and delaying it serves no purpose. Further, they indicate the evils of grade inflation which has obviously run rampant in Ontario since such exams were abandoned.

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