Solution to grade-buying? Standardize

Robyn Urback makes a case for levelling the academic playing field

Earlier this morning, Maclean’s posted a story about a growing group of teens (or rather, teens’ parents) who pay for their grades. The gist: High school students are forking over thousands for an easy ride. For students, this is hardly breaking news. Think of it like that time Mel Lastman summoned the army to clear Toronto snowbanks; everyone knows what’s going on, but for those involved, it’s just too embarrassing to talk about.

Now, I could be cliché and rant about the types of problems created by these pricey soon-to-be-university-acceptance-letters, but there’s a whole blogosphere of people out there who will do that for me. Rather, I’m going to make my case for what I see as the most viable solution: standardized testing.

If I’ve offended you with my blasphemy, I apologize.

I’ll back up. Now, I know the ministry has come up with the remarkably innovative solution of putting a “P” on students’ transcripts beside marks bought obtained at private schools, but I just can’t shake the nagging itch that something’s amiss. Call me a downer, but maybe that one character won’t be enough to completely overhaul university acceptance procedures nationwide. Damn half-empty glass; always distorting my perceptions.

Curves and scales and other equalizing measures would also be a waste of time, in my opinion. Rich mommies and daddies will always find a way. Truth be told, who’s to say they shouldn’t? It’s dog-eat-dog out there. So if you have the means and are comfortable conceding to the idea that your child’s 95 is on par with my 75 and the gum on my shoe, then go for it. Though I must say, a part of me can’t help but commend those parents for seizing the opportunity to provide advantages for their children. After all, who’s to say an earnest failure is any better than a subsidized success? You play the cards you’re dealt; if you’ve got a way to one-up your competition (whatever way that may be) and are comfortable with your concessions (who really needs “work ethic” anyway?) why not go for it?

Nevertheless, standardized testing, in my opinion, is the way to best deal with these discrepancies. (Should I allow some space for a dramatic pause?) I think it is the most objective and fair way to measure student success. But before I go on, I suppose a sort disclaimer is in order.

I’m biased. My high school experience culminated to approximately 22 hours of standardized testing over a week and a half. (The horror!) I was enrolled in a Toronto high school that offered three distinct (public) programs; a regular stream, a specialized program for student athletes or actors who required flexible learning schedules, and a rigorous academic program called the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. I took part in the latter (and often questioned that decision).

Students in the IB program willingly (or else through powerful subliminal coercion techniques) take the uphill road to a high school diploma. They’re required to complete 150 hours of community service in grades 11 and 12, complete an independent research assignment culminating to a 4,000-word essay, and submit ISUs and exam packages for a minimum of six subjects to be graded by certified markers (whom they’re never met) overseas. So, to the person in Switzerland who was marking the three essays I wrote for my third history exam, I was just student 174000159. Surreptitious charm or bribery wouldn’t work, nor would a sob story about my dog choking on a sock or my slack homeroom teacher who “didn’t teach me anything.” The onus was on me, as it should be for adult-threshold straddlers.

Of course, there were haters. To many students with whom we shared school walls, we were the elitist, self-righteous ivory tower-bound; it was a bang-on description, but whether it was the chicken or the egg is a matter of debate. In any case, we embraced our ostracism and embodied our scorned profile. We transformed our student cards into “IB cards” whereby “the cardholder [was] exempt from all rules that apply to regular stream students” and stitched “IB” into the crests of our uniforms. Was it obnoxious? Certainly.  But it brought a little humour to our otherwise stressful academic lives.

The most significant aspects of the program for me, however, had nothing to do with the actual lessons learned. Its value was latent. We knew our marks meant something; we were taking the same tests on the same days as students halfway around the world. We were self-motivated; the program was free at our school, so our efforts weren’t propelled by the desire to make the most of our parents’ money. Most of all, we took responsibility for our own learning. We knew our schedules from the beginning of the year and we knew what we would be tested on. Our teachers were there merely to guide us. We had to develop independent learning skills and our own course study groups (one of which we contentiously named “The Council of the History Elite”).

Standardized testing is required to get into law school, medical school, to get a driver’s license or go to university in the US. Why not create an objective measure of high school aptitude that even the brute force of daddy’s wallet can’t permeate? …much?

Of course, it’s easy for me to propose a massive national testing initiative from behind the protective veil of my computer screen, citing anecdotal evidence and a mediocre understanding of academic policy. Tackling the cost would be a feat in and of itself, never mind the logistics of developing administrative bodies, invigilators, etc. And with such important things going on in government today, such as the NDP’s upcoming vote on whether to drop the “New” from “Democratic Party,” I realize I should probably put this issue into some perspective.

I know standardized testing is rumoured to strip children of their innocence/put [fill in blank] at a disadvantage/make puppies cry, but in my opinion, it both levels the academic playing field and offers the opportunity for students to gain new life skills. But then again, being able to manipulate a situation whereby mommy and daddy buy you a university scholarship is quite a formidable life skill in itself.

Photo by ccarlstead