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Do grades have to be everything?

By: Hadeeqa Aziz, Contributor

This one is for all the first years. So you’ve heard your grades will drop and you’re rather terrified of what the next couple of years will bring. And rightfully so, because according to data collected by the University of Waterloo, the average Ontario high school student’s grades will likely drop by a factor of 16 percent. Some of you may not worry too much because you’re confident in the way your high school conditioned and prepared you for post-secondary education. 

After all, you’ve earned your way into your program, haven’t you? The feeling of accomplishment is even more incredible now, especially since admissions averages have been steadily increasing over the last few years. For example, according to student observations on r/OntarioUniversities, McMaster’s life sciences gateway program has seen an increase in cutoff averages since 2019, from high 80s to low 90s. 

There’s nothing short of a plethora of reasons to explain these increases, from larger applicant pools to better overall student performances, especially in light of online learning. There’s one factor, however, that remains prominent — one that we all know exists but seldom find the courage to thoroughly talk about: grade inflation. 

It’s a sensitive topic because implying the existence of grade inflation is an implication that not everyone sitting in your lecture hall has rightfully earned their way into their program. The onus, however, is not on the student, but seemingly on the high schools they come from. 

All Ontario universities value grades when assessing high school seniors for undergraduate admissions, taking the form of an average of your top 6 courses in Grade 12. It appears to be the most plausible evaluation tool, as it’s supposedly designed to gauge your competence as an academic. Here’s a shocking revelation though: not all students have been to the same high school. What does this mean? It essentially implies that a 95 percent average at one school may not hold the same value as a 95 percent at another. 

Grade inflation is often rooted in a decrease in academic standards or when faculty don’t have clear expectations of their students. This leads to grade inequality, meaning that equal qualities of work are assigned different grades across schools, departments or courses. 

Many speak to the problematic nature of grade inflation, while others outright deny that it’s even a problem. When inflation leads to increased admissions averages, it sets grade standards to an all-time high, so much so that some career prospects may be taken away from students who fail to reach those standards. 

The process of achieving the ridiculously high grade requirements for the University of Waterloo’s engineering programs, for instance, is not the same for all students. Those who don’t reap the benefits of grade inflation would have to work much harder than those who do. Here, universities risk being unfair to the students who have more rigorous marking standards. And we haven’t even touched upon other factors that contribute to student issues such as socioeconomics, race or geographics. 

Entering university with inflated grades isn’t all that fun either. If inflation leads to misinterpretations of a student’s competence and studying habits, perhaps it can lead to similar misinterpretations on a student’s fitness for their program of entry. Students unprepared for the demands of university education may be more vulnerable to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. 

In an attempt to be fairer to high school applicants, the University of Waterloo used data from their engineering program to develop a list of what they call “adjustment factors” for each high school. This factor uses a student’s admission average and their first-year average to gauge the effects of grade inflation by measuring the “gap” between the two grades. Essentially, the higher the gap, the higher possibility that the student’s grades were inflated in high school. The faculty supposedly take this adjustment factor into consideration during the admissions process. 

Schools at the top of the list argue that Waterloo’s student sample is too small to reflect the hard work of their teachers and students. From their perspective, it’s quite difficult to collect robust data on inflation and adequately prove such a claim. 
Instead, more individuals wish to see a discussion on whether or not standardized testing can play a role in the solution. Standardizing students, however, comes with its own set of issues and instead, I think most students would appreciate more individualized assessments of their accomplishments. If universities continue to treat grades as “everything,” they’re effectively missing the bigger picture.

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