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Aiden Muscovitch: Grade inflation is turning the university admissions process into a race to the bottom

Commentary

The deadline for students to accept Ontario university admissions offers has just recently passed and the process has made one thing abundantly clear for Ontario high school students: there is unprecedented competition for a coveted few admissions to the province’s post-secondary schools. Gone are the days when an 80 average would virtually guarantee entrance into your Canadian university of choice. Today, even a mid-90 might not be good enough.

In 2023, a record-breaking 530,856 applications were submitted by 91,843 Ontario students, averaging nearly six applications per student. To illustrate, this year the University of Western Ontario’s sought-after Ivey Honours Business Administration stream received over 7,000 applications for only 600-700 first-year admission spots. With approximately 10 applications per available spot, the Ivey HBA program set a competitive applicant grade average requirement of 93. Similarly, at the country’s top university, the University of Toronto’s St. George campus’s Computer Science program received over 5,000 applications, resulting in a total of 309 accepted and registered students in 2020. The highly selective program only accepts students with averages in the mid-to-high 90s.

Moreover, Canada admitted a record-high of 550,000 international students in 2022, many of whom enrolled in Ontario universities. It is expected that even more international students will join Ontario universities this year. Their higher tuition fees make them attractive candidates, often occupying spots in the province’s most competitive programs.

Many parents send their children to private schools, hoping that the school’s impressive reputation and high grades will provide an edge in the application process. However, recent data from the University of Waterloo suggests that private school education does not always guarantee success in university.

UWaterloo analyzed Canadian high schools, both public and private, to identify those inflating their students’ marks and to what extent. By comparing the final Grade 12 marks of admitted students with their grades at the end of their first year of university, they determined a school-specific “adjustment factor.” This adjustment factor allows them to alter students’ incoming grades as they see fit, meaning that a 95 may turn out to be an 85 or, in some cases, closer to a 75 when adjusted.

Interestingly enough, some parents of public school students have resorted to private education by having their children drop classes at their current school and enroll in the same course through an accredited private company. Students pursue this option when they realize that the grades required for their program and university of choice are unattainable in school, so they pay to obtain them.

However, the UWaterloo system does not, to my knowledge, account for students who still belong to a particular school but take some courses outside of that school. Therefore, if their school has a favourable adjustment rate, their paid-for 95 might bypass UWaterloo’s measures. It is worth noting that other major Ontario universities have not publicly released anything similar to UWaterloo’s grade adjustment system yet.

In Ontario high schools, obtaining the grades necessary for admission into the province’s top programs is challenging for most students. Many students, whether in public or private schools, work tirelessly to earn the 80s and 90s required for their top-choice programs. However, private courses have created an uneven playing field in the Ontario university admissions process. What were once reputable companies assisting students with alternative learning styles have transformed into “grade factories.”

These grade factories are known to pump out inflated grades, ensuring their students gain admission to their top university choices while building a profile of positive testimonials. Charging fees ranging from $600 to $7,300 per course, depending on factors such as online or in-person instruction, class size, and location, these companies guarantee high grades even without significant effort or work from the students.

In a 2020 CBC article, one student reported that they “barely showed up but ended up with a 90” in their Grade 12 English class. That same student called the private courses he attended “a joke,” citing that everybody in his classes, undeservedly, got 90s.

Nevertheless, many public school students find themselves taking private courses, either online or in-person, for valid reasons. They may require smaller class sizes, personalized teaching, or self-directed coursework. These students should be concerned about the influx of students who do not require the available resources, neglect their responsibilities, and yet achieve high grades, thus exploiting a system that has benefited many.

Similarly, students attending private schools, along with their parents, should take note of these grade factories. Not only do public school students taking out-of-school courses potentially take away spots from their children, but these students also join the private education world during Grade 12, paying a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for the same grades that actual private schools charge tens of thousands of dollars for over the course of four years or more.

These students and the companies providing private courses are largely responsible for the current grade inflation in Ontario high schools. Expecting students to consistently score above 95 in any given class is unreasonable, yet it happens. In my experience, these grades are not earned by the genius, front-row sitting teacher’s pets, but rather by those who might have failed the same course if taken in a public school.

One of the most concerning aspects of this issue is that private courses are not new, and universities have been, presumably, aware of them for years. Universities must know which students have taken private courses and which classes they have completed, as it is indicated on the students’ transcripts.

The transition from high school to university is already challenging, as supported by data from the University of Waterloo. Consider the students who cheated through high school and manipulated the university admissions process—are they being set up to succeed in their first year of university?

The core injustice lies in the fact that these students are taking highly coveted program spots away from others who complete their coursework in school and genuinely learn from it. They could have taken online courses, but they did not want to flunk out of university; they wanted to learn. 

Many students are being denied admission to the programs they have aspired to join for years for no valid reason. If the playing field were level, their efforts would be reflected in their outcomes. The current situation is the exact opposite.

Our country’s future is at a direct disadvantage because of these grade factories. By either punishing integrity or rewarding deception, we are setting students up for failure.

In recent months, I have witnessed my classmates distressed by the fact that other students are taking private courses to inflate their averages and gain an edge in the admissions process. They have come to terms with the possibility of not being accepted into their desired programs due to an unfair advantage enjoyed by their peers.

We must raise awareness about this issue and push for transparency and fairness in the university admissions process. Ontario universities need to implement stricter guidelines to ensure that all applicants are evaluated based on their actual abilities and achievements rather than artificially inflated grades obtained through private courses.

The intense competition for university admissions in Ontario, fueled by private courses and grade inflation, is a matter of concern. The current situation compromises the merit and integrity of the admissions process, disadvantaging hardworking students who rely on their academic achievements and genuine efforts.

Sean Speer: Overused accusations of extremism are diminishing our political debate

Commentary

One of the stranger and unhealthier developments in modern politics is the ceaseless process of redefining what we consider “radical” or “extreme” such that we risk rendering the terms essentially useless. This propensity for gratuitous labelling is invariably inflicted on the Right more than the Left. 

Take Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. His campaign in hindsight was generally boring, uninspiring, and even at times hollow. But his politics were fundamentally recognizable as mainstream conservatism. Yet he was regularly characterized by the media, pundits, and his political opponents as a “radical”, extremist”, and voice of the “far right.” 

The same treatment extended to Conservative MP (and former party leader) Erin O’Toole who delivered his final speech in the House of Commons this week before he departs from politics altogether this summer. Although his leadership of the Conservative Party was marked by a clear shift to the political centre, he was still denounced by the media and his opponents as bigoted, intolerant, and even a white supremacist for his use of the (completely benign) slogan “secure the future.” 

O’Toole’s successor as Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, has been subjected to even greater claims about his alleged political extremism including from some voices who purport to be on the Right. These accusations, it must be noted, are mostly vague and unpersuasive. They generally refrain from policy specifics and instead point to communications and style. 

There’s a good reason: Poilievre eschews the typical policy positions of the far-right figure that his critics wish he was. He’s pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, and pro-immigration. As much as his critics may not like his elbows-up tactics, they’re wrong to confuse them as an expression of ideological radicalism. Poilievre’s politics are decidedly liberal. 

It doesn’t mean that he hasn’t taken controversial positions (for instance his promise to fire the Bank of Canada governor) or ought to be free from criticism. Poilievre is no shrinking violet. He certainly gives as good as he receives in political combat. But it does mean that his critics need to go beyond strawman arguments in order to challenge his ideas. 

It reflects the biggest problem with this tendency to characterize conventional political views as extreme. It’s a poor substitute for real dialogue and debate. Dismissing ideas that we disagree with as radical or extreme is inherently anti-pluralistic. It fails to grapple with the multiplicity of political preferences in a diverse society. There are bound to be competing views about the trade-offs between freedom and equality, the tensions between secular and religious conceptions of the good life, and the role of the state in the economy and society. Claiming that the other side of these debates is beyond the pale implies that there’s only one accepted “truth” in our political life. 

Another problem is that it has a diminishing effect on our collective ability to identify certain ideas or political actors as actually extreme. There are indeed true extremists in our society but it becomes harder to call them out or marginalize them when the working definition of extremism encompasses debatable yet ultimately mainstream political views. 

The danger is that it gradually leads people to shift their support from those accused of political extremism to actual extremists. It’s somewhat intuitive that after George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan were mischaracterized as reactionaries, their supporters became drawn to political figures who really are reactionary. If everyone to the right of a narrowly-prescribed set of acceptable political propositions about taxes and deficits is now considered extreme, then the distance to real extremism is necessarily shorter. 

And then of course there’s the argument that the tendency to call certain ideas or politicians extreme tends to be rather one-sided. Ordinary conservative politicians are regularly subjected to the accusation of extremism but left-wing ones—including those with curious views about climate change or capitalism or gender, race, and sexuality—never face similar treatment. 

Yet one could persuasively argue that many of the positions advanced by today’s progressive politicians are more outwardly left-wing than Poilievre, Doug Ford, Danielle Smith, or whatever conservative politician one thinks is moving to the far Right. There’s evidence in fact from the United States that progressives have moved more to the Left generally in the past several years than conservatives have moved to the Right. These findings broadly align with political developments in Canada. But there’s little discourse about these trends including whether they ought to be understood as extreme or radical.

The key point here isn’t a dispute about who is more or less extreme but rather a call to preserve claims about political extremism for when they’re really appropriate and otherwise to confront political ideas with arguments rather than labels. That’s how we can ultimately restore a healthier, more decent, and genuinely pluralistic politics.