Aidan Lising/Ryersonian

Matthew Hodge, 21, remembers his first year at the Ryerson Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) as a stressful one. Like most first-year students, he had to get used to the new environment, teachers and peers, and having to go up at least three escalators to get to his classes.

However, in his first year at Ryerson, Hodge went from having an 84 per cent average, to one in the 70s. The Silverthorn Collegiate Institute graduate was used to getting good grades without a great deal of effort. As a result, it took some time for him to improve his work ethic and crank up the effort he was putting into his schoolwork. Hodge now has a 3.8 GPA, but he admits that if he hadn’t changed his study habits, he would not have the grades he has today.

Interestingly, the Etobicoke native’s initial struggle in university and large grade drop comes as no surprise to the University of Waterloo’s engineering faculty. The school has been tracking its students’ grades for decades, calling it the “adjustment factor.” It focuses on how much, if at all, students’ grades went down in their first year of university in comparison to their high school marks. Based on the average amount that students’ grades dropped, the University of Waterloo created a list that showed the relative grade inflation rate for dozens of Ontario high schools.

Grimsby Secondary School in Grimsby, Ont., was the biggest culprit, with an average rate of 27.5 per cent. It is closely followed by Kitchener’s St. Louis Adult Learning Centre, which has a rate of 27.1. Third on the list is Southern Ontario College in Hamilton, with a rate of 25.7. These are high, especially when compared to the average rate for the rest of Ontario’s high schools that are not on the list, which is 16 per cent. Throughout the 2016, 2017 and 2018 admission cycles, there have been 74 Ontario high schools that appeared on the list. Some have been on the list for just one year, while others for all three.

This list also seems to show that the same mark from different high schools could mean different things, and as a result, many admission recruiters are not taking students’ marks for what they are.

Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi confirmed that Ryerson does not have any similar lists that rank high schools for the purpose of admissions. “We treat all these schools in the same way,” says Lachemi. “We think it is the responsibility of the ministry, school boards and of course, the individual schools and teachers to ensure that grading reflects the knowledge that students have.”

Since Ryerson has so many arts-based programs, many faculties have a lot of admissions requirements beyond grades, including portfolios and in-person interviews. Lachemi says that while the first year is usually the hardest for students transitioning from high school to university, there are many programs students can reach out to if they are feeling overwhelmed and need support with their coursework.

Charles Pascal is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in  Education (OISE), who specializes in applied psychology and human development. He says that Waterloo’s grade inflation findings are “overblown,” and such research can be very subjective and misleading due to the small sample size. Pascal believes the truly important statistics are the ones that show how many students are dropping out or failing in their first year at university. He added that these are the true indicators of whether or not students were properly prepared for post-secondary education.  

“If students don’t drop out and they don’t get failed out, and they graduate, you look at the longer term, then what is the problem?” says Pascal. “The validity of using grades as the sole determinant of whether grade inflation makes any difference to the long-term success of the student is something that is questionable.”

Pascal offers a potential solution to this problem: the creation of online self-assessments for students to test their knowledge and gain a better understanding of what the university requires them to know, prior to beginning their program. He also says universities should make specific lists of various concepts and ideas that students should have a firm understanding of before they graduate from high school.

However, the release of this list has sparked a conversation about whether a student’s grades are indicative of their preparedness for university-level academics. Will  university admission officers focus less on marks, and more on extra-curriculars and other aspects that demonstrate a student’s work ethic?

Fourth-year business student Matthew Hodge walks along Gould Street during his five-hour break between classes. (Ruty Korotaiev/Ryersonian)

According to Hodge, his Etobicoke high school did a decent job preparing him for university, though he credits much of his success to his own determination to do well. Majoring in business technology management, he finds that because he took so many business courses in high school, he was already familiar with some of the content taught in his university courses.

“I thought I would for sure do worse in university. It’s kind of expected to go down by five or 10 per cent,” says Hodge. “But when I saw the list posted, Silverthorn C.I. was 20 per cent on the dot, I was sure that my mark didn’t fall by that much.”

Hodge believes a lot of first-year courses are designed to “weed out” the students that are not trying or putting in the effort. One of his classes, Foundations of Information Systems (ITM100), taught the basics of information technology, but by the end of the semester 30 per cent of the class had dropped out. “There’s definitely people who get into university that shouldn’t be here, so that could be where it’s coming from,” he says.

Admittedly, Hodge thinks the publication of this list will cause problems for students in these high schools, and might even lead to parents pulling their children out of them.

He says it will also add a lot of pressure, particularly on Grade 12 students, whose marks might not be taken as seriously as those in other schools.

“I think first year helps set up a baseline where students are coming from and what their marks are like,” says Hodge. “I don’t think marks are everything, because if a student is willing to try, they will find a way to succeed.”

James Turk, a Ryerson professor specializing in post-secondary education and academic freedom, agrees with Hodge. He said that grades, on their own, are not indicative of a student’s intelligence.

“Generally, almost everybody experiences a dip in their marks going from high school to university because things are so different in university,” says Turk. “The standards are higher and there is enormous pressure on students these days to get good grades and to go to university, which in turn creates pressure on teachers to grade more gently.”

Turk says the university admission process should always be based on a mixture of different factors, including portfolios of the student’s experience in the field that interests them, as well as any types of extracurricular activities they are involved in.

He points out that more research needs to be done into this subject, and it is particularly important to take note of whether these high school grade gaps are present among other faculties in the university. Additionally,  there should be a focus on whether these grade levels remain relatively constant throughout the students’ university career.

“It might not be grade inflation, so much as students with weaker science programs that they’re graduating from, have more trouble in engineering,” says Turk. “Those same schools may have good English programs so there wouldn’t be as big a drop for students going into humanities. So that’s why it’s hard to really know what a study like that is actually showing.”

Third-year nursing student Taylor Barker sits on a bench in the Ryerson Quad, enjoying one of Toronto’s last warm days of summer. A Vaughan Secondary School graduate, her school had a hefty 23.9 per cent inflation rate, one of the highest on the list. However, as a straight A student, Barker feels she deserved her good marks in high school and that they were not too affected by her school’s suspected inflation.

When she started her first year at Ryerson in  2016, Barker was ready to amp up her effort level, determined to keep the same marks she had in high school. However, she says this drive was short-lived, and the work ethic she developed in her first semester of first year was one that she could not have maintained for all four years without completely burning out. Barker’s hard work paid off, though, and during her first semester, her marks were virtually the same as they were in high school. By second semester, it was a different story.

Third-year nursing student Taylor Barker sits in the Quad. (Ruty Korotaiev/Ryersonian)

“The workload was twice as much. It wasn’t so much that the content was harder than in high school, it’s just that there was a lot more of it,” says Barker. “My first semester of first year, I was way too intense. That semester I just studied, that was it. So that’s why I think that, afterwards, my grades evened out more to the usual drop from high school to university, just because I couldn’t maintain that work ethic.”

Though it was expected, Barker says it was hard for her to accept that her grades would be lower now, particularly because of the strict rules in the nursing program. She says if she were to get a 63 in a course, she would have to repeat the entire year; this lead to a great deal of stress, especially in one second-year course that she was uncertain she would pass.

“This definitely impacted my feelings about university. I was so much more stressed before the school year even started, because I was so afraid that the same thing was going to happen,” says Barker.

She is unsure whether her high school played much of a factor in preparing her for university. During her four years at Vaughan Secondary School, Barker feels she did not develop a solid work ethic because she was simply not doing nearly as much work as she is now. She was intent on pushing herself to do well, and though she used similar study methods, her work ethic was not like it was in high school.

“I think what really prepared me was hearing from other people about how hard (the nursing program) was going to be, and this prepared me for the level of intensity,” says Barker.

Grades are a tricky business when it comes to measuring students’ intelligence. This dilemma is made even more nuanced by the fact that grades are subjective, and one mark could mean many different things depending on the high school a student went to.

“Intelligence, and success in university, is dependent on more than just the students’ ability to memorize stuff for the test,” says Turk.

The general consensus is that success in university depends largely on the student, and no matter what high school one went to, and what marks one got, doing well in university is not a black and white issue. Rather, it lies in the person’s ability to adapt to new environments and people, and to their drive to succeed.

Grades typically don’t make or break one’s university career, especially if you are not planning on doing any graduate studies, because after all, C’s get degrees.

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