Can high school grades be trusted?

If you need better marks, some private high schools are happy to oblige—for a fee

Can high school grades be trusted?One afternoon in the spring of 2007, teacher Peter Hill was recording marks when he confided to a colleague that one of his Grade 12 English students was in danger of failing. In fact, Hill explained, he’d been concerned about the grades of several of his English 12 students at University Hill Secondary School in Vancouver, and he thought it strange that none of them had come to him for extra help.

“I was used to handing back essays to kids and if they weren’t doing well they’d come to me after school and they’d want to know how they could improve,” says Hill. “But in this case I handed back the essays and they’d just sort of grin at me, throw the essay away or whatever. And I was like, ‘God, that’s different.’ ” His colleague, a guidance counsellor, told Hill not to worry: the student would likely get a good mark anyway because she was taking the same course after-hours at a nearby independent school. Hill was stunned: “I just said, ‘Huh? What other school?’ ”

It turned out that five of Hill’s students had been taking Grade 12 English at Century High, an independent school that catered largely to international students hoping to attend a prestigious university in Canada or the United States. The students would regularly attend Hill’s class during the day, then take the same class at Century in the evening or on Saturday. “The weird thing is that kids were enrolled here [at University Hill] taking English with me and they were going to Century High, and if they decided they wanted the Century High mark, then it would go on their transcript and it would appear as if the mark came from this school,” says Hill. In British Columbia, that was made possible a few years ago when the province introduced a new policy allowing students to take courses from different institutions. The change was intended to provide choice for rural students, who could take online courses not offered in their home schools and then choose their “best mark” to appear on their transcript. But the policy has led to so-called credit shopping, too.

It bothered Hill considerably that a student could be taking the same class at two schools at the same time, then use the higher marks on her application to university—so much so that he decided to do a bit of sleuthing. He found a B.C. government website that lists class marks and provincial exam results for every school—private and public—in the province. And he found some disturbing information: for the year 2006-2007, 101 Century High students (60 per cent of the class) received a B grade or higher in Grade 12 English; just three failed. When he looked at how the same group of 138 students performed on standardized provincial exams, the results were just the opposite: 108 had failed the exam and only eight students got a B grade or higher. He found similar differences dating back to 2003-2004, when the online records begin. And Century wasn’t the only independent school showing a large difference between marks awarded by teachers and provincial exam results.

Hill decided to blow the whistle. He reported his findings to the local media, and a few days later then-minister of education Shirley Bond ordered an inspection of Century and any other school—public or private—that had big discrepancies between class marks and standardized exam results. In March 2007, the B.C. government issued warnings to five independent high schools in Vancouver — Century, Kingston, Royal Canadian College, Pattison and St. John’s International— insisting they move quickly to address concerns about large disparities between English 12 marks on provincial exams and the marks awarded students for class work.

It’s long been common practice for secondary students to attend night or summer school to make up a missed credit or improve a grade. Among teenagers, some public schools are known to be more difficult than others, and some teachers mark easier than others. But that’s not new, and by all accounts the public system is still equitable. On the other hand, private schools, once the exclusive domain of the rich, have become more popular. Students from upper middle- and middle-class backgrounds, along with English-as-second-language students with excellent grades in math and science but lousy English marks, are turning to private schools because of their low student-teacher ratios, flexible schedules and specialized programs catering to learning disabilities or language instruction. The students’ goal is to get not just good marks, but outstanding ones. As the number of students attending university has grown over the past decade, competition for admission to choice programs has grown fierce, in some cases pushing average entering grades into the 90s.

Of course, most private schools are reputable. Yet some operations—often referred to as “credit mills” or “credit shops”—are using students desperate to get into university (along with their parents) as cash cows. As long as a student slaps down hundreds of dollars per credit—in some cases as much as $1,500—these schools are happy to oblige with marks in the 80s and 90s, whether the student earns them or not.

On May 18, 2009, at 8:25:35 p.m., a Toronto high school student using the handle Skeske1234 posted the following on a forum hosted by, a popular site that matches high school students with scholarship and bursary information at Canadian universities.

Skeske1234: I want to upgrade my grade 12 advanced functions mark this summer, but I am not sure what private school I should go to . . . there are many . . . many in Toronto. Name the one that you went to or that you know someone who went to that school and tell me about your experience there. Off the top of my head, some questions:

What mark did you end up getting?

How was the workload, exam and teachers?

How did the process go about and did it go smoothly for when the school transfers your mark back to our school—did the private school upload the mark on OUAC [Ontario Universities’ Application Centre] or did they send the mark back to your original school?

What did you specifically tell guidance counsellor when you knew that you wanted to upgrade or take a credit during the summer at a private school?

Later that evening, ZoSo471 replied with a name of a private school in Markham, Ont.

ZoSo471: I took it for English

I got 90 per cent

Absolutely no workload, exam was like 15 minutes, teacher was smart but naive

Process was smooth, I didn’t have to do anything

Guidance counsellor didn’t like it, especially with a course like English, but it was worth it.

It was basically a buy your mark, but we read a lot of books so that counts for something . . .

Unlike Vancouver’s Peter Hill, educators in Ontario, particularly in the Toronto area, no longer find this kind of disclosure from students surprising. For Joan Timmings, head of guidance at Joan Fraser Secondary School in Mississauga and past president of the Peel Guidance Heads Association, the issue started to bubble up about five years ago at “pockets of schools” in Peel Region, west of Toronto. Since then, Timmings says, the number of public high school students taking one or more courses at private school has grown rapidly. “We did a needs assessment with our group of guidance heads, and it was almost the No. 1 area of concern that they wanted to have addressed by the executive,” says Timmings.

Counsellors in Toronto and, to a lesser extent, in Ottawa and London express similar concerns. The problems they cite include students who are guaranteed A’s as soon as they sign on the dotted line and hand over the tuition, and students who do not have the course prerequisite (in some cases, they don’t even have the prerequisite for the prerequisite) somehow getting an 85 per cent or higher at a private institution. In the public school system, a principal can waiver a prerequisite, but it’s done only under exceptional circumstances. Suspicion has also been raised by the number of courses some students are taking and the amount of time required to complete a full credit course. “The Grade 12 year is a heavy year, and most students take three or a maximum of four courses at once in a semestered program,” says Timmings. “But we have students taking four, five, six, seven courses at the same time. They may be taking three or four here in day school and then taking two or three more at the private institution. There seems to be no limit, and they will get exceptional marks in those courses.” Furthermore, Timmings says, some students will actually drop out halfway through a semester and then finish their courses by the end of the semester at a private school. “I don’t know how, in let’s say two months, they’ll have finished four entire courses if not more,” she says. “If they’re supposed to be in a 110-hour course, what they’re doing there is theoretically an impossibility.”

In the spring of 2008, principals at several Toronto public high schools decided to track the number of their students taking one or more credits at private academies. As far as anyone knew, it had never officially been done. Anecdotally, everyone from the minister of education to the school board seems to know about the problem, but unlike British Columbia, Ontario does not have provincial exams, so comparisons are difficult. “We’re collecting the data. The data tell the story,” says Clara Williams, principal at York Mills Collegiate Institute in North Toronto. “There’s no question they [private academies] are popping up all over the place right across the province. In Scarborough, they are popping up everywhere. And if they close they just reopen at another place.”

Williams wouldn’t divulge the statistics for York Mills. But Beverley Ohashi, principal at Toronto’s Earl Haig Secondary School, did. During the 2007-2008 academic year, 101 Earl Haig students took a total of 136 credits at 30 private schools. Most took Grade 12 courses in English, followed by math, then a few courses in social science and sciences. “When [we] compared the mark to the mark in our programs, some of them [showed] such a big range that you wonder about the integrity of the program that is being offered,” says O’Hashi.

At Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, principal Peggy Aitchison said 140 students took credits part-time at private schools in 2007-2008, mostly in Grade 12 math or English; typically, they earned marks 15 to 40 points higher than at Forest Hill. (Several other schools were part of the group in Toronto that collected the data, but many of those contacted by Maclean’s did not return calls. Instead, Maclean’s was referred to Mary Jane McNamara, central co-ordinating principal, secondary curriculum, at the Toronto District School Board; she did not respond to a request for an interview.)

This is not just a concern for public schools. Some of Toronto’s most respected private schools, known for their tough academic programs, are grappling with the same issue. Vince Pagano, the principal at Crestwood Preparatory in northeast Toronto, first noticed his students taking credits outside Crestwood during the early 1990s. “My biggest problem is the marks that are coming back are, on occasion, completely out of line, and the difference can be huge,” says Pagano. “The example of a kid who got a credit over a three-week period actually floored me because, technically anyway, there is a 110-hour requirement for all high school courses. So I don’t know how anybody can have 110 hours in three weeks—or four weeks or five weeks, for that matter.” Pagano is worried that a few bad apples will give all private schools a bad rep.

At the end of June, Maclean’s interviewed via Facebook several York Mills students who agreed to speak off the record. All three have successfully finished Grade 11.

Sixteen-year-old Ben took Grade 12 English at a private school while he was enrolled in Grade 11 at York Mills last year. Ben gets marks in the 90s in math and science, but English was a problem. He was afraid that if he doesn’t get a high Grade 12 English mark, he won’t get into life sciences at McMaster. (He eventually wants to be a dentist.) “I took this route because some of the courses in high school are especially hard and you can’t get higher than 60 or 70 [per cent],” he says. “However, once you take it in private school, you can easily get 80s. Personally I would recommend it to other people, but some people take all their courses there [private school] because they think they could get into university. That’s true. But they’ll get kicked out after the first semester because they haven’t learned anything.”

Ben ended up with an 87 per cent in the private school course.

Sam just finished Grade 11 at York Mills and is seriously thinking of taking a course or two at a private school next year. “To be honest,” he wrote, “in this age it’s all about getting into university, and with all the competition, and an increasing number of immigrants coming from South Asia and East Asia with a lot more knowledge than what most Canadian-born students have, the competition gets a lot tougher.”

Seventeen-year-old Peter took an English 12 course at a private school this summer. At York Mills, his Grade 11 math and business marks are in the mid-80s; his computer mark is in the 90s.“The main reason I am taking English in summer school is to open up more space in day school to do other subjects,” he wrote. “I’m not looking for an easy mark. I’m a French immersion student; however, languages are my weakest subjects, and during the year, they are lowest priority. Having only one subject to deal with at a time will help divert all my efforts into that subject. I plan on going into math/business and I do not plan on submitting English 4U as one of my top six courses, so taking a course in summer school is just to get it out of the way for my last year.”

In Ontario, the problem first surfaced publicly in 2003 during the so-called double-cohort year, when the provincial government eliminated Grade 13. For one year only, Grade 12 and 13 students applied to university at the same time. To meet the increase in demand, the Ontario government poured millions into new infrastructure and new spaces at universities. Despite assurances that there would be enough spots for everyone who wanted to go, students and parents panicked. “There was a lot of finger-pointing,” says Queen’s University registrar Jo-Anne Brady.

Around the same time, a guidance counsellor at Toronto’s Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute went public after discovering that about 50 of the school’s Grade 12 students were taking one or two credits at private academies. In his view, students were essentially buying credits. Responding to the public outcry, between September 2004 and June 2006 government inspectors shut down 10 private academies, finding they weren’t meeting instruction standards set out by the Education Act.

In Ontario, all private schools are required to register annually with the government, but only schools that grant credits leading to the Ontario Secondary School Diploma are inspected—generally every two years, but more often if they are having problems, are new or are expanding. If registration is revoked, however, the school may reapply to the ministry to reopen as a credit-granting institution in the following school year. Today, some of the private schools that were closed in 2004-06 have reopened under new names, or under the same name but in a different location. No other private schools have been shut down since that time.

The Ontario government made other changes to try to address the problem. Under the Education Act, a student’s home school is responsible for recording grades on the official transcript. So when a student leaves the home school to take a couple of courses, she typically brings those results back to her home school for inclusion on the transcript. That practice angered guidance counsellors and teachers, because first of all the grades were suspect, and secondly—at least back then—it looked as if they themselves had given the marks.

The Ontario Universities’ Application Centre made some electronic changes that allowed home high schools to include their “mident numbers”—the official identifiers given by the ministry to every school, public and private, in the province—on the record of grades sent to OUAC, which in turn sends the record on to universities. “The change allowed high schools to report a separate mident number for [outside grades] so that it was clear to the application centre and to the universities receiving the marks that this was not one of their courses,” says Wilfrid Laurier registrar Ray Darling, who at the time of the change chaired the Ontario Universities Council on Admissions.

On the surface, the issue disappeared. The OUAC and universities could now identify where a credit has come from. But the system is far from perfect.

In a letter last December to Darling, Timmings explained why the current system is not working. “A few years ago, the OUAC made it possible for guidance counsellors to indicate the mident number associated with each credit. This is a cumbersome task in this day of electronic-grades-transmission, requiring guidance counsellors to keep track of which credits are earned at other institutions and change the mident number for each such credit manually. Cumbersome or not, however, some guidance counsellors have been following this process regularly with the hope that someone is keeping track of this data and perhaps noticing that the high grades earned from some of these private institutions do not predict the same level of success in university studies that do the grades from regular day schools. Knowing that such research is actually occurring would . . . encourage guidance counsellors in our area to continue and to increase their efforts to provide the mident data via the OUAC tool.”

In August, in response to concerns from educators that some private schools are still inflating grades despite the addition of the mident number to transcripts, the Education Ministry announced that beginning in 2010, credits earned at private schools will be marked with the letter “P” on transcripts. Timmings believes it’s a step in the right direction. But many educators aren’t convinced that it’s an answer—after all, a number or a letter doesn’t indicate whether a student deserved that grade.

In an interview with Maclean’s, Darling admits that until now universities have not done anything with the data. “Our whole system relies on ‘a grade is a grade is a grade,’ ” says Darling. “If we have to give in to weightings of different schools and delivery methods, summer school versus distance versus day school—boy, it would get pretty ugly and messy.” Furthermore, most decisions by far are made by computer. “You couldn’t go through them [applications] manually,” Darling says. He and Ken Lavigne, the registrar at the University of Waterloo, have agreed to undertake a joint study of the data sometime in the future—at the moment, it’s still in the planning phase. “I think that one of the fears when we first opened this can of worms,” Darling explains, “was people were saying, ‘Great, we can use this to shut down people who are abusing the system, but then are you going to take the next step and start examining all of us and see where our grades are at?’ ”

Tracking high schools using their government-issued identification number is not new. In the past, the University of Toronto’s engineering faculty did it until the province changed the curriculum during the double cohort. The University of Waterloo’s engineering faculty still makes minor adjustments to marks based on high school. But the practice has never really taken off, largely because it’s hugely unpopular among high school and university officials alike. “If I said I’m interested in School X, we could go back through our records and identify every student who has taken courses at school X,” explains Karel Swift, the registrar at the University of Toronto. “And if we accepted them, and they came here, we could then look at how they did. That would take years and it would not be useful unless you had a fairly large number of students from that school. It would be several years hence and the school could have disappeared or changed or changed its name.” And then there’s a practical reality: “No matter how good or not good a school may be,” Swift says, “a student could be legitimately a very good student and could do very well [at university] no matter what their prior circumstances.”

Students say regulating private schools is a good start, but more needs to be done to improve the education system itself in Ontario. Hailey Simpson, who is in first year at the University of Guelph, hasn’t taken a course at a private school, but she has friends who have and she’s somewhat sympathetic. “Obviously if students are seeking private school courses,” Simpson says, “there is something wrong with the regular high school system.” She also wonders why so many students stick around for another year after finishing Grade 12—the so-called victory lap, during which they repeat courses or take additional courses in an effort to improve their marks. Some even see it as a way to do extracurricular activities they never had time for before, such as running for student council or participating on a sports team. “I think the problem started [in Ontario] when they got rid of Grade 13,” she says. “It has compacted everything down on us and it makes our lives stressful because there is so much to do.”

York Mills student Sam also lays the blame on the system itself: “Students from my school cannot cope with the workload, and the problem starts with the high schools.” And like many other students, he laments the high marks required to get into universities: “It would be totally awesome if universities cared a little more about [other] criteria and less about marks.”

Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the 2007-2008 individual school results have recently been posted on the government’s website. It appears that Century, Royal Canadian, Pattison and St. John’s College International have aligned their grading practices more closely with provincial standards. One of the schools, Kingston High, has closed, citing a drop in student enrolment after the government issued its warning. For the remaining four schools, the differences between exam marks and classroom marks have shrunk. “It’s amazing how much closer the exam mark is to the school mark compared to those other years where the school marks as all A’s and the exam marks were F’s, in effect,” says English teacher Hill.

Deborah Robinson, executive director, strategic enrolment management at the University of British Columbia, has followed the issue closely. She says that UBC doesn’t adjust marks based on where a student comes from, but some of the government’s recent policies have made things more difficult for admissions people. “Has the ministry complicated our lives by opening up choice?” Robinson asks. “Yes, they have.”

For one thing, she’s recently seen discrepancies among students taking courses through distance learning. “As students are wont to do, they quickly learn which ones are easier and which ones are tougher,” says Robinson, whose university has recently introduced new rules about distance learning credits. “We had a counsellor report to us that a student signed up for a distance education course on Friday and completed it on Monday, and actually received a mark in the 90s,” says Robinson.

There isn’t a university admissions person in the land who wouldn’t want to use more than marks to assess student applications. Certain programs, such as music or drama, have their own admissions process, and some other programs ask students to write a personal essay. But for most applicants, that kind of personal attention is simply not possible. “As Canada’s top institutions start to attract more and more students, not only nationally but internationally as well, we have to start to deal with all kinds of different transcripts and credentials and marking schemes,” says Robinson. “What you try to do is get it right 95 per cent of the time. And you wish that it was more exact than that, but it’s not.”

So what happened to that Grade 12 student who was flunking English at University Hill, the one Peter Hill was so concerned about? The teacher chuckles when asked if his student graduated. “Oh, yes,” he says. “She got a 40 per cent class mark in my course and a 90 per cent course mark from Century. She failed the provincial exam, but after her exam marks were blended with her mark from Century she received an overall 70 per cent in the course.”

She ended up in a prestigious science program at UBC.

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