Pushing through a fourth year of high school to improve her grades is not where Laaryssa Nicols saw herself a year ago.
The 18-year-old Ross Sheppard High School student thought she’d be adjusting to university life and enrolled in kinesiology at the University of Alberta. That changed when her 80 per cent average was one percentage point shy of the grade she needed to be admitted to the program in 2016.
“I think I panicked,” she said of the day she heard that she’d missed the mark. “I didn’t really have a Plan B.”
Now she’s back at Ross Sheppard for an extra year, trying to raise her math and social studies grades to be more competitive when she applies again.
Science teacher Mike Tachynski, who taught Nicols, said worthy students are unfairly shut out of post-secondary programs because of grade inflation — a practice where some teachers give students marks higher than they have earned or overestimate their grasp of the material.
The proof, he told the Edmonton Public school board in the three minutes he was allotted to speak at its Jan. 31 meeting, is in the sometimes massive gaps between Grade 12 students’ grades assigned by classroom teachers and their results on provincial diploma exams.
“Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are administering more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the flip side, students with artificially high grades may flounder when admitted to college and university programs, he said.
Tachynski wouldn’t speak on the record outside the school board meeting for fear of professional repercussions. The board thanked him for his presentation and did not discuss the issue.
The gap Tachynski points to is indisputable. Provincial data shows that, in 2016, 96 per cent of students were given a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of students who took the Math 30-1 diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, that gap was 15 percentage points.
Some of the differences between the number of students who received an “honours” mark (80 per cent or higher) from their teachers, and scored honours on the diploma exam are even larger. For the last five years, there’s been a greater than 35 percentage point spread between the number of French immersion students who get an honours grade in class for French Language Arts and the number who earn honours on the diploma exam.
One Edmonton data visualization company has plotted the gaps for every school in the province on one interactive graph, showing how some schools record a marked difference in grades, while others did not.
The Journal examined provincial data back to 2008 and found that the gap in pass rates between classes and diploma exams has grown in five of 12 subjects during the past nine years. In eight of 12 Grade 12 courses, the number of students earning excellent marks in class has grown while the proportion achieving 80 per cent or higher on the exam has stayed about the same. The mismatch between the actual marks awarded in class and on the exam has also grown during the last nine years.
What educators can’t agree upon is why these discrepancies exist, and whether they’re evidence of teachers giving credit where it’s not due.
‘You can’t make blanket statements’
In the eight years he spent as director of Alberta’s diploma exam program, Tim Coates has seen teacher-submitted grades that left him exasperated.
In some schools, one teacher submitted grades to the ministry that were all As and Bs, while a teacher across the hall submitted grades that fell more tidily across a bell curve — mostly Bs and Cs with a handful of As and Ds.
Some of the students in the class with many As took “precipitous falls” on their diploma exam marks, he said.
And then came the phone calls from “a great number of parents who were highly upset,” Coates said. He told them to ask their child’s teacher why their classroom grades were so high.
The diploma exams, he said, are a finely tuned objective measure, created with input from teachers and graded by teachers.
Class marks rising without a corresponding increase in exam marks is a red flag, and grade inflation is one explanation, Coates said.
Why would teachers give out grades students didn’t earn? They’re humanitarians who want to see their pupils succeed, Coates said. Some are opposed to diploma exams, or consider them invalid. Others know students will struggle on the exam and want to “give them a leg up” going into the test.
He’s also seen teachers struggle to give meaningful assessments in class. He compared a good test to an optometrist’s eye chart — you need rows of tiny letters to distinguish people with good vision from people with excellent vision.
Kathy Muhlenthaler, assistant superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, said there are many possible explanations for the gaps in grades. If several students are on the cusp of achieving honours, a grade drop of just a couple of percentage points on the diploma exam can push them off the mark of excellence. Teachers also push struggling students to challenge the diploma exam, even if they’re likely to fail, to get experience writing the test, she said.
Muhlenthaler said it’s also difficult to compare diploma exam marks over time when the curriculum or test format changes — a point Coates contests, saying the exams are designed to be compared between years.
Gaps between the two grades do not prove grade inflation, she said.
Tim Coates is a sessional lecturer who teaches future teachers how to grade students. Coates is past director of the Alberta government’s diploma exam program, and says inflated high school grades are a growing problem that leave some students unprepared for university.
“You can’t make blanket statements about that data.”
Several people interviewed also pointed to diploma exams’ limitations compared to the broad and varied assessments teachers do in classrooms.
“We can’t predict what a student’s mindset is on a particular day,” Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar said.
Improved instructional strategies by teachers could also be improving student outcomes, he said.
“We can’t really apologize for getting good results in our classrooms.”
Also widening the gap may be a provincial push in high schools toward more “formative assessment,” in which teachers will return assignments or essays for students to improve and resubmit, sometimes resulting in a higher grade. In other cases, students are allowed to re-take tests to show their grasp of the material has improved.
Looking for signs of trouble
Despite their adamance about the limits of diploma exams, Edmonton’s two largest school boards do monitor for signs of grade inflation.
School principals are expected to monitor data class by class to watch for disparate results, said Tim Cusack, assistant superintendent of learning services innovation with Edmonton Catholic Schools. He encourages teachers to volunteer to grade provincial exams and said teachers need to understand how grade inflation can be detrimental to students.
Although it doesn’t happen often, grade inflation is possible, Cusack said. Four years ago, when he was a school principal, he dealt with the case of a math teacher handing out grades that were too generous.
Meanwhile, the press secretary for Education Minister David Eggen, Lindsay Harvey, said in a written statement it is up to individual schools and districts to interpret how class grades align with diploma exam grades.
“There has never been an assumption that there should be a perfect, or near-perfect, correlation of results,” Harvey stated.
Alberta Education is monitoring the effect of a January 2016 change which dropped the weight of diploma exams to 30 per cent of a student’s final grade from 50 per cent.
University admission standards rising
At the University of Alberta, computer algorithms sift through thousands of final marks on university transcripts to help decide who will be admitted. Although both the class and diploma grades are on transcripts, the university only looks at the number obtained when the two marks are blended together, said Lisa Collins, vice-provost and university registrar.
However, there are forces other than grade inflation at work. Last year, nearly 32,000 students applied for 12,700 undergrad positions, Collins said. The number of people applying to undergrad programs has risen 14 per cent in five years while the number of students the university can accept has remained about the same, she said.
The admissions process also looks at students’ Grade 11 marks because most students apply before completing Grade 12.
If grade inflation was a problem, the university would see gaps between the students’ high school performance and their first-year grade point averages, along with higher dropout rates, Collins said.
If the gaps in grades continue to grow, people may lose confidence in Alberta’s diploma exams, which would be a shame for an internationally respected program, Coates said. The government could also return the weighing of the exam to 50 per cent of the Grade 12 mark, or report the two grades separately, he said.
Until then, Alberta students are standing on a skewed playing field, which should spur them to work as hard as they can for a good diploma exam mark, Coates said.
“The system as it currently stands, it is hard to say it is level, when you see the variance.”
The gap in passing rates in 2015-16, Edmonton Public Schools
Data posted on Edmonton Public Schools’ website shows a school-by-school breakdown of students’ success rates in class, and on the diploma exam. While some schools’ results show a correlation between the two marks, others do not:
• Seven Amiskwaciy Academy students obtained a passing grade in Social Studies 30-1. One of them passed the diploma exam
• At Eastglen, 96 per cent of students in Chemistry 30 got a passing grade in class. Just 47 per cent passed the diploma exam. Everyone enrolled in Science 30 had a passing grade in class, but less than half of them passed the diploma exam. While 88 per cent of students in Math 30-2 had an honours grade in class, just 12 per cent of them achieved honours on the diploma exam
• Nearly half of the students enrolled in French immersion at Harry Ainlay High School had an honours grade in French Language Arts 30-1 class, yet only 4.3 per cent of students achieved an honours grade on the diploma exam
• Before the diploma exam, it appeared J. Percy Page students were strong in math — 91 per cent of Math 30-1 students passed the class, and 45 per cent had honours. More than half of those students — 54 per cent — failed the diploma exam
• At the end of the course, 99.5 per cent of Queen Elizabeth students enrolled in English 30-1 were passing. Forty per cent of students failed the diploma exam. Ninety-five per cent of Math 30-1 students passed the Math 30-1 class, but more than one-third of them failed the diploma exam
• Of Ross Sheppard students enrolled in English 30-1, 43 per cent had honours in class, and 10 per cent achieved honours on the diploma exam. Sixty per cent of French immersion students had honours in French Language Arts class, and eight per cent had honours on the exam
• At Victoria School, 99 per cent of students were passing Math 30-1, and more than half the class had honours. Almost half of the students failed the diploma exam
Edmonton Catholic Schools does not make school-level data publicly available.