Every year, high school seniors hailing from all kinds of schools, social classes, and races apply to universities with big hopes and dreams.
Students coming from private high schools are accustomed to paying tuition for their education and, often, it seems like they are essentially investing in a business with statistically higher marks as their return. On the other hand, public high schools are sometimes underfunded and have larger class sizes, therefore, resulting in a less personal (albeit much more affordable) learning experience.
Are private school students truly paying for the marks they receive? How do private high schools uphold their reputation as elite schools if their graduating class average is low? These questions are a few factors to consider when discussing mark inflation.
What is Mark Inflation?
Mark inflation occurs when teachers or school staff increase the averages or overall class marks of their students to give the appearance that they performed better in a course than they actually did. It most commonly occurs when a student receives a higher grade on work that would typically receive a lower grade in a more standardized setting. This is most commonly seen in private schools due to their lack of government regulation.
In 2011, a Toronto Star journalist named Jennifer Yang went undercover as a student in a private high school. Yang’s teachers, unaware of her undercover mission, boosted her grade by nearly 25% while letting other students retake tests they had done poorly on, only the second time around, with an open book. This is a jarring difference to public schools, who generally only increase their students’ grades based on extra credit.
Hence, private schools escape watchful eyes and function more like a business than a place of learning. They can inflate marks without hesitation in order to maintain their profitable image. However, mark inflation can happen unintentionally in public schools as well.
For the average student, in theory, mark inflation seems to be a friend just there to look out for your back: decreasing academic pressure and always there to cushion the fall of a failed test.
So, why is this a problem?
Due to mark inflation, private school students who receive both higher grades and leeway are unaware that their work is not up to a provincial or national standard. Unfortunately for them, universities have a vastly different academic atmosphere in the sense that professors are not required to monitor a student’s progress or work.
Not only do illegitimate grades render students unprepared for universities’ academic rigor, but the selection of said students also takes away program positions from actually legible students.
Surprisingly, the trend of grade inflation amongst private schools is a huge contrast to generations ago when mark deflation was the common practice. The main issue with identifying mark inflation is that students don’t want to admit that their high marks were not earned fairly. However, if everyone receives a 95% in the same class, that grade no longer has any meaning: it’s just a number without representing any viable work. Grades and marks do not equal progress or how well a student performed in a class.
Former scientist, Stuart Rojstaczer, commented on the issue by saying:
“Students aren’t getting smarter. They aren’t studying more. When they graduate they are less literate. There’s no indication that the increase of grades nationwide is related to any increase in performance or achievement.”
However, some universities aren’t letting inflated marks pass without repercussions.
Take, for example, the University of Waterloo, which has strict guidelines on how they handle mark inflation. To counteract the issue, Waterloo amongst many others apply mark deflation to high schools that they believe inflate their students’ marks. The idea behind this is that the private and public school students would have an equal chance of getting into competitive programs once the playing field is made equitable.
In reality, there is much more to be done to equalize all students. Although Waterloo openly talks about mark inflation and deflation, universities that don’t apply these same tactics lose out on talented and capable students, as well as experience a high dropout rate in first-year undergraduates.
According to a study done by Brock University in 2010, students that entered their university with a 90% high school average had a 12% drop out rate, whereas students who received a 60–79% average in high school only had 4.5% drop out rate. 80% of private school students to attend Waterloo have faced above-average drops in their GPA at around 16%.
Why does it matter if mark inflation occurs at a public or private school?
Unfortunately, mark inflation disproportionately affects students from lower-income backgrounds, students of colour, and LGBTQ+ students who are more likely to attend public schools. By accepting private school students at higher rates due to mark inflation, universities not only miss out on diversity in the student population — but they also take away valuable opportunities from students who have worked just as hard as those with more privileges.
At the end of the day, universities have to do a better job at leveling the playing field between all students and ensuring the most equitable methods for program admissions. Along with that, the government has to set better standards for private and public schools to ensure neither students may fall to a disadvantage.
Instead of taking statistics at face value and only attributing hard work to private school students, we must look at all facets of education in order to ensure equity, as a society. After all, children do not get to choose where they are born or their financial situation.