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Mark Inflation: A Student’s Friend or Foe?

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 on