Monday, December 12, 2011

Are We Dealing With Academic Snobbery?

Recently a colleague shared some insights from a book he was reading - Campus Confidential - 100 startling things you don't know about Canadian universities.   The authors, ex-Deans of Canadian Universities, raise a number of points regarding the role of high schools in preparing students for university. 

One particular issue the book deals with is "grade inflation" in high school.  My colleague shared the following quotes:
"On average, students grades drop by 10 points [when they start university]. Alarmingly, those who come to university with the highest marks suffer the biggest drop.. . . the reason is grade inflation"
And another one here: 
"Universities are not total patsies, and there is a secret they don't like to broadcast.  Registrars, who are responsible for university admissions, know that not all high schools are the same.  Over time, they collect data on the academic experience of graduates from individual schools.  They can then handicap the students from outlier schools. If Nowhere Secondary School consistently gives overly generous grades, applicants from that school will have their grade averages discounted.  An 80 percent student from Nowhere Secondary School might get credit for a 'real' standing of 76%"
This email elicited some interesting responses from some of my colleagues:

From one colleague: 
Having a son who just entered university, let me comment on his experience.   He entered university with a fairly high average.  On his first paper the prof gave him a score in the 70’s.  As pointed out, the result was far below what my son was accustomed to receiving.  After a couple other similar scores the prof told my son that he really appreciated his work.  According to the prof, my son’s writing was well beyond his classmates and more like a post-graduate student’s work.  Yet the marks remained the same.  So I have to ask; was my son’s work at high school inflated or is the prof’s assessment simply academic snobbery?   I trust that our teachers know who the university bound students are and are doing their best to give authentic and accurate assessment to those students.  I think that some of onus is on the university profs to give students accurate assessment feedback and not simply blame high schools for inflating marks.
 From another colleague:
In reality, I guess I knew how “to play school” (i.e. did all of the 50+ odd numbered math questions for  homework; wrote my name on the top left corner of the essays; regurgitate what the teacher wanted on command on tests; coloured within the lines; had perfect attendance; “was a pleasure to have in class”; arrived on time for class; etc…).

Thankfully I learned in subsequent years at university, the creative and critical skills that would support me in my professional life.
Some more thoughts:
They (the authors) also point out that preparing students for university is not the sole aim of high school so in many ways its unfair to expect high schools to cater to the needs of universities.  Its impossible to deny that primary and secondary education has to deal with many issues that universities don't.....However I do agree with the deans that inflated grades aren't a measure of success regardless of the method that is used to determine them.  Instead all they really do is paint a false picture of student performance. Which is why they said that the students with the highest grades suffered the most severe grade drops in university and is (in their opinion) the primary reason why the drop out rate is in university is approaching 20%.
I also have some of my own questions and thoughts:
  • Let's agree that grades are not the best way to measure and quantify learning.  At best they are an imperfect remedy to a complex process (that is the learning process).  As someone tweeted the other day, "in some instances grades corrupt ones view of success".    I do believe that as educators we need acknowledge that we learn from our mistakes.  Learning is a process.  Like I've written before  -  Grading Failure is not an option
  • I can only speak about my own under graduate experience in university.  I am not sure we can (or should)  always look to university professors as models of pedagogy and best assessment practice.   Again, from my perspective, most professors that I encountered in my under graduate work were interested  in their own research and writing – not necessary holistic assessment and good teaching pedagogy.
  • Any time we talk about fixing "grade inflation" we get into conversation about about maintaining "high standards and expectations"  and "Rigour".  I think we need to be clear about what each of these ideals look like in our 21st Century Classroom.
  • I have been immersed in many conversations and read much on how our K-12 system of education must adapt to the needs of our 21st century world.   I am hearing much about the need to personalize learning, to emphasize key skills surrounding literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, ICT, creativity and collaboration - and how technology increasingly enhances the teaching and  learning of these skills.  I am participating in conversations that de-emphasize grading and, instead,  magnify learning.  
  • Are Deans and professors having these types of conversations?  Are changes imminent in post-secondary institutions? If we want to change the "system" then surely our post-secondary instututions need to be apart of this change.
    I would love to hear the answers to some of these questions from those teaching and learning in post-secondary institutions.  Let's keep this conversation going..... 


    1. Boy, this post really hits home for me. I'm really struggling with this issue.

      As a new teacher, I decided to kick off my career by using standards based grading. In a nutshell, I assess tests and quizzes according to learning outcomes. Each objective is marked out of 4, and mastering gets a 4. Latest mark per outcome counts for grading, re-assessments are allowed if applied for.

      I'm at a school with reasonably academic kids. Or, kids with parents that want their kids to have high marks. 80% of my students have tutors. For Term 1 there were rediculously high amount of students with grades 94% and higher. In some ways it is embarrassing, as it is off the norm.

      The benefits to the kids are clear. They get to target their weaknesses and given a chance to learn. In that sense, I would say the system is working fantastic. Their is no more "I don't get dynamics." Students are clear on exactly what part(s) of dynamics they don't get.

      The downsides are also clear. My grades reflect student's ability to meet learning objectives. The grades don't tell a story of efficiency of effectiveness. I'm sure there are kids with 95%+ in my class that would get eaten up and spit out within months of entering first year physics at university.

      My grades are also different from any physics teachers I know. Other teachers' grades reflect the learning process (my students have portfolios that do this). My students probably have higher grades than those at other schools. I should emphasize that I have a few students that did 100% correct without re-assessments, so there is some academic drive playing out. Is it fair that my students get higher grades because of re-assessments and last grade counts? Probably. But I wouldn't call it inflation. Every mark is earned. I've had students write and re-write assessments without getting an extra mark. They have to earn it.

      I'm currently going with the idea that frankly, it is not my job to get students into university. And it sure isn't my job to help the universities. They can pay me for help, if that's what they want. My job is to get the kids to learn, and I hope that is happening. That I have students that try re-assessments for weeks may seem like the evil of SBG, but on the other hand... that is a kid spending three extra weeks of time and effort that ultimately ends up in them learning something.

      In the end though, I don't know what is the best way forward. I would feel a lot better about SBG if I thought that it didn't influence other students' opportunities to get into university, or be used as a way for comparing students. I really wish universities had a better way of selecting applicants but I suspect that Grade 12 marks are here to stay. I wonder what would happen if most teachers did SBG, and most teachers had a lot of students with marks of 94% and up. Then what the universities do?

    2. Here are a couple of other possible reasons students marks drop when they enter university:
      - they aren't just at a new school; they may be living away from home and their support network for the first time.
      - tuition is a stress that they haven't had to deal with before--whether they are footing the bill themselves and having to work to pay for it or whether they are worried that whoever is paying the bills isn't going to be happy with their performance.

      Let's face it, the jump from grade 12 to first year university is not the same as the jump from, say, grade 11 to grade 12. There are a lot of things at play here aside from pedagogy and how we assess students at both levels.

      Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this.

    3. Hey Johnny, thanks for bringing this up as this topic frustrates the heck out of me...

      This blame game gets us nowhere. Problems in education? Blame the parents. Blame the schools. Blame the elementary schools. Blame the high schools. Blame the universities. Blame the Ministry. Then what? Do we feel better?

      You bring up some great points here but I will add what, in my mind, is the most important.

      When are we going to stop blaming others and realize that every level needs to work together to support students in THEIR learning?

    4. Thank you for bringing this dialogue front and centre. I'll be sure to keep this in mind should I get accepted into the M.Ed Educational Psychology program next year and I'm asked to explain my drastic first year marks compared to my graduating year, honours with distinction!

    5. I really appreciate the comments everyone. Lots of wisdom and perspectives to think about. Chris, I hear you on the blame game - unproductive and toxic.

      Still would love to hear from some post-secondary folks in response to this posting.....

    6. Grade inflation is a tricky issue and I think most teachers have knee jerk reaction to the idea and immediately assume that they aren't doing it. As a Physics teacher most of what I teach is pretty black and white so grading isn't quite as subjective as in other areas. If someone told me my grades were inflated I'd probably have the same initial reaction. However to be perfectly honest I really don't have any evidence to show that.

      Grades are standards, regardless of what methods we use. And the whole point of having a standard curriculum set by the ministry is that those grades are standard not just from one student to another or from class to class but across the entire province. So an 80% in my Physics 11 class should be (roughly) equivalent to an 80% in another class. And vise versa. In individual cases like direct comparisons of my grades to someone else its not really possible to say who is grading to easily and who is grading to harshly. Ideally we need a standard yardstick to determine that. The provincial exams accomplished this. Regardless of their pedagogical merit they kept teachers honest. All high school teachers had to ensure they were teaching the same things at an equivalent difficulty level.

      Alberta and Ontario still have required provincial exams and students from those to provinces have less of a grade drop when entering university. (see

      Here in BC, because grades are not really standardized grade inflation will occur simply because what one teacher considers an acceptable level of difficult is different than someone else and different than the intended outcomes.