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


Solution to grade-buying? Standardize

  1. There is a much easier solution to this problem than ruining our education system with further soulless standardized testing and obsessions with bubbling in. The province licenses these private instituions; if they receive complaints about a school, they should investigate and revoke their license. Easy. It’s the responsibility of the government and of school boards to ensure the quality of teaching and testing is consistent. They just need to do their jobs.

  2. The author argues that standardize testing is required to get into law school and concludes, therefore, that it should be required of highschool students in Canada. What the author conveniently leaves out, is that the LSAT is completely useless. Many a study has been done and the LSAT is absolutely no indication of success in law school. It is law school’s dity little secret. At the end of the day, when deciding between two otherwise equal candidates, law schools use LSAT scores. I think the author also completely overlooks the fact that just because a student can “buy” their way into university, it does mean they can “buy” further success. Once at university, students who truly have no idea which way is up are going to do poorly. Ultimately, there are many people who do not test well but that does not make them poor candidates for university. Standardized tests in all forms are nonsense and totally useless. The author’s arguments are flawed and there is no merit to any of them. This story is filled with the personal experiences of a very self-motivated individual. And while self-motivation is an excellent quality, not many 15-18 year olds have the maturity to possess such a trait.

  3. I’ve seen this go both ways. Many private schools are far, far superior to the public system in terms of the quality of education the students receive. They have good student-teacher ratios, rigorous curricula, personalized tutoring–yes the students are paying to get a better education, but it certainly isn’t being gifted to them. Some of the more prestigious private schools in BC that I’m familiar with require all of their students write the AP exams (ie. a difficult international standardized test) so that they come out not only with a fantastic transcript, but also with credit for virtually the entire first year of university from a well-respected international agency. I’ve heard of other schools (or summer schools) being the high school equivalent of a diploma mill, but, as Evelyn suggests, this is a practice that should be dealt with by the ministry.

    It is worth pointing out that many universities already do take such matters into consideration. It has been reported (I think I actually read it here at Macleans in fact) that many universities will rank high schools based on the difference between an average student’s entrance average and their first year grades, and normalize GPAs accordingly. Eg. if the university finds that students from highschool A with 90% averages typically score 70% in their first year, and students from high school B with 80% averages typically score 80% in their first year, students from school B will be chosen preferentially over those from school A. Presumably, they keep this sort of data for private institutions as well.

  4. @Alysha:

    I suppose I’ll have to take your word for it that the LSATs are “completely useless” since you don’t cite the particular studies you are referencing. I made mention of them merely to draw comparisons to other aspects of society that have (effective) standardized testing procedures in place. Their appropriateness as a gauge of future law school success is only minutely linked to the larger topic here.

    Though you’re quite right in arguing that just because success can be “bought” in high school, it doesn’t necessarily mean that future success can be purchased. It’s much more difficult to buy your way through university; I can certainly acknowledge that. I would argue, however, that a strategically placed dollar can at least get you an upper hand. Many high school students with private school “A”s will automatically qualify for some university entrance scholarships. Maybe those students, therefore, won’t be bogged down with a part-time job and can focus more on their studies. There are also unpaid internship programs for university students (though mostly in the US) whereby parents pay for their child to work for free. (See link: Pricey tutors and private workshops also help too. Of course, this is all speculation, but it’s just my personal opinion that the buck doesn’t stop at high school. (Excuse the pun.)

  5. The problem here is that standardized testing overwhelmingly favours those who are wealthy enough to hire tutors to learn the tricks of test taking. Standardization isn’t going to reduce grade buying, it may in fact have the opposite effect.

  6. As someone who actually wrote the LSAT and attended law school, I can report that I don’t believe it is useless or entirely random. The LSAC (the organization that administers the test) has a huge body of research on the topic, subject to peer review, etc. Here’s a study on the predictive capacity of the LSAT for both first year law school grades, cumulative law school grades, and also (for the curious) with some break out data on ethnic minorities.

    I agree with the last post. Economic privilege is ignored (in typical American fashion, as they tend to subsume class dialogue in race dialogue) as a factor. I tend to agree that the results are skewed by those who can afford high end prep.

    All the same, research has continually backed up a general point. The LSAT is far from perfect as an indicator of success in law school, and exceptions occur all the time. It’s also far better than random. So when used in combination with other admissions criteria it is valuable and valid.

    Here’s an interesting suggestion. American schools tend to lean more heavily on the LSAT as a determining factor than Canadian schools – likely too much. I’ve heard it suggested this is because the university (college) system in the States is so skewed that their grades can’t be trusted. In other words, standardized testing isn’t the solution to lax standards. Rather, it’s the last recourse once standards have been abandoned.

    I accept there’s a role for the LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, and similar graduate level testing mechanisms. But standardized testing cannot replace the role of government in enforcing standards on our educational system and institutions. The belief that it can only becomes an excuse to retract the role of government here, which would be very unfortunate indeed.

  7. Jeff, I have also written the LSAT and I am also in law school. I did mediocre on my LSAT and am doing very well in law school (topped 2 classes so far). I was a psychology student in undergrad and we looked at standardized tests and their effectiveness. The LSAC is biased so I take their results with a couple tablespoons of salt. I will attempt to find some unbiased research to support my position as I do not like making claims that I cannot support. I will admit that there are definitely correlations between the LSAT and law school success, but humans have a tendancy to find patterns in completely random data (a well known fact in psychology). A correlation has extremely limited value. The purpose of the LSAT is the PREDICT which students will succeed, a purpose that, in my opinion, is almost impossible to fulfill. That is where my issue with standardized tests lays – they are used for a purpose that they cannot fulfill.

  8. This ‘problem’ has been ongoing for many years and likely will continue well into the future. The time needed by the Ministry to fully investigate these ‘private’ schools would appear to be well beyond their means. Pressure has been put on the post-secondary institutions to do something with the information to now be provided on high school transcripts (indicating a ‘P’ for private school outside of the student’s regular day school). ABarlow referenced the fact that many universities already use this data in the admissions process. In Ontario this is simply not the case. It would take years of data collection and statistical analysis to come up with a statistically relevant factor to be applied to the admission process. What Barlow is referring to is actually one case of a very specific program at one university. I agree that this is a Ministry issue and as such the solution should come from them.