Your grades will drop

How universities and high schools are setting students up for disappointment

Scott Penner was a model high school student. With a grade 12 average of 93 per cent, and with math and science as his strongest subjects, he was poised to be a successful engineering student. That is, until he started at the University of Manitoba. Penner was not expecting to glide through university, though he “was still expecting to do fairly well.” Even by these lowered standards, his first year was less than encouraging. Not only was he receiving an uncharacteristic assortment of Bs and Cs, he failed first-year calculus, a prerequisite to continue on in engineering. “It was a bit of a shock,” he says.

Penner is not alone. The vast majority of students see their grades fall, often dramatically, once they get to university. What is sometimes called “grade shock” can have devastating consequences for students, as they struggle to cope with the fact that they are no longer at the top of the class.

Within the course of a semester dreams can be easily whisked away. “The business program or engineering program that they thought they were going to pursue [is] not an option for them anymore,” says Brock University economist Felice Martinello who recently co-authored a study on the changes in grades between high school and first-year university.

There are also financial repercussions. In 2008, Maclean’s surveyed the rate at which students who received entrance scholarships kept the requisite grades to maintain their funding going into second year. At York University, where fully 60 per cent of incoming students received an entrance scholarship, only 10 per cent kept their funding. At McMaster the rate was 21 per cent. At Ryerson, seven per cent.

As grades have long been known to predict whether students will complete their program, significant grade drops may be contributing to dropout rates, suggesting that students coming in, even with an A+ average, may become discouraged and simply give up. In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that it is the highest achieving students that are most at risk for being disappointed in university.

In his paper, Martinello, and coauthor Ross Finnie, find–consistent with previous research–that on average students see a 10-point drop in their grades once they are in university. Using data from Statistics Canada’s Youth In Transition Survey, the study concludes that nearly half of all students surveyed saw their marks decline by one letter grade. About 23 per cent saw their grades plummet by two letters or more. Only 2.5 per cent of students saw their grades improve, and about a quarter maintained averages consistent with their high school marks.

But, what is novel about Finnie and Martinello’s paper, and pertinent for high school academic stars like Penner, is that the economists determined that “the highest achieving group (in high school) has the largest decrease in grades.” Students entering university with a 90 per cent or higher experienced a drop of 11.9 points. Students with high school marks in the 60-79 per cent range had only a 4.4-point drop. Prior studies tended to assume that even with a drop, that there was a linear relationship between high school and university grades. Finnie and Martinello’s research challenges that assumption.

“You’d think that maybe, oh, it’s the weaker students, that once they go to university, they’re really going to get killed, but it turns out that’s it’s the 90 plus group,” Martinello says.

Recent trends suggest that the challenges of grade shock are only going to become more widespread. That’s because students with average entering grades, in the B or B+ range, are slowly disappearing. And when all, or most, of the students come in with an A or A+ average, many will have nowhere to go but down.

At the University of British Columbia average entrance grades across the university are expected to be 87 per cent this year, a two per cent increase from last year, and up from 80 per cent ten years ago, and 70 per cent twenty years ago. Andrew Arida, UBC’s associate director of enrolment says higher entering grades are simply a matter of supply and demand. “Because students are presenting higher grades, we’ve had to raise our admission averages to avoid over-enrolling,” he explains.

Only a few years ago, UBC was admitting around 15 per cent of students with grades below 80. That number is dwindling fast. Although Arida didn’t have final figures for the fall, he says only a “small number” of students will get in with less than an A. Students entering the two largest faculties, science and arts, will need a minimum high school average of 86 and 85 per cent respectively.

Similarly, the University of Waterloo increased by seven per cent this year over last, the number of entering students with an average of at least 85 per cent.

Schools like Waterloo and UBC, already considered prestigious, are joining an elite club of universities that are inaccessible to all but the highest achieving students. With an average entering grade of 88.9 per cent, Queen’s University rarely admits students with less than an A average. At McGill, the median average entrance grade for Canadian students is 92 per cent.

Even schools not normally recognized as overly selective shut their doors to all but a handful of students with a B or B+ average. For example, at the University of Saskatchewan, approximately 68 per cent of incoming students in 2009 had at least an 80 average, with more than a quarter holding marks of 90 or higher.

Other universities have made a more conscious effort to increase their coterie of A students. In a bid to shed its “Last Chance U” moniker, Carleton University began steadily increasing entrance requirements in the mid 1990s. In 1993, the average entering grade was about 72 per cent. In 2009, it was nearly 82 per cent.

That many, if not most, of today’s students will take a substantial hit to their grade point averages is in one respect an entirely logical conclusion. Students are graded on their performance in and of itself, but also in relation to their peers. Having a larger pool of stronger students means that they will be competing more often with others like themselves, and less so against students who are not as academically inclined.

However, there is also the problem of grade inflation at the high school level that suggests it is not just the fact that the bell curve shifts, but that students have been given an inaccurate assessment of their performance. As one measure, more than 60 per cent of Ontario high school students graduate as Ontario Scholars—students with at least an 80 per cent average. That figure has been steadily increasing for decades. In the early 1980s, Ontario Scholars accounted for 40 per cent of graduates.

Some universities, like Waterloo, address grade inflation by adjusting their admission standards to account for the high school where a student graduated, in recognition that an A from one school is not equivalent to an A at another school. At UBC, entering students are asked to submit a personal profile along with their application to help distinguish between students. “I think there is more compression at the high end in high school than there is in university,” Arida says.

The convergence of high school marks at the high end of the grading scale has been blamed, in part, on pressure from university-bound students hoping to get an edge on the competition. But, slack grading is hardly a favour with long-term benefits. “If you had a better, more accurate, signal from those high school grades, you’d get better decision making,” Martinello says.

At universities that have a long-standing reputation for being particularly selective, however, students may be better prepared to deal with the inevitable challenge of lower grades. At Queen’s, 95 per cent of students continue into second year, and 90 per cent graduate, among the highest rates in the country. “I think it would be fair to say that students expect the courses to be more challenging at university and that the same effort will not yield the same results as it did in high school,” Queen’s associate registrar Stuart Pinchin stated via email.

Other students are not so prepared.“The skill that [students] are lacking is the ability to adjust, that they’ve never failed a course before and they’ve never had a low grade before,” Martinello says. “They just don’t know how to cope with it.”

Even so, Arida says students should recognize that they are not doing as poorly as they might think. “A student who gets 90s in high school, who gets high 70s and low 80s in university, is doing quite well.”

As for Penner, he was determined to not let his poor performance in first year threaten his plans. He repeated, and passed, first-year calculus, allowing him to continue in bio-systems engineering. He has improved his study habits by more consciously learning to take advice. He has some advice of his own. “Listen to your profs.”

Your grades will drop

  1. Hopefully, Canada will continue to allow McGill, UBC, Queen’s and U of T to keep their high standards. Or will the be mandated to “dumb down” so that lazy and medicre students can “succeed”?

  2. Thanks for a very good article by Carson. The “grade shock” phenom has been true for decades, but not as dramatic as nowadays. What I learned as a University instructor was that students must be encouraged to take their exams and not give in to fear of lower grades and consequent parental disapproval. Effort is more important than imagined stigma from getting lower grades in year one.

  3. It’s about time that high schools stop handing out A’s to everyone. I hardly know of any students with marks below 80 even those who obviously should be getting marks in the 50′s or 60′s. Unfortunately our youth today expect this and teachers/board of education push them through at any cost to save them from failure and disappointment. i once had a prof tell me that they expect to get A’s by simply showing up…that tells you a lot about what the high schools are passing on to the university level…something for nothing..Honestly, it is appalling to think these ‘children” have never had to face failure and deal with it to empower themselves. God help us all that it is this generation that will be leading us into the future.

  4. I’m currently finishing up a graduate program at the University of Toronto and have been reflecting on how high school has prepared me for my university career – I feel I could maybe add to your piece from my own experience.

    Even before I entered high school I became used to teachers warning me of how difficult university is, and how my grades would drop. This is pretty frightening stuff, especially for a kid who didn’t get the greatest marks in the first place. Academically, I limped through high school. Getting decent marks, but nothing outstanding. In March of 2005, to my surprise, I was accepted at the University of Waterloo.

    Fast forward one undergraduate degree, 5 years, and a Masters program later. I’ve realized two things; (1) not only did high school do a pretty bad job preparing my class for what to expect, but (2) high school marks give absolutely no indication of how a student will perform at university. Although important, I think it is ridiculous how much importance grades are given – especially in high school.

  5. @ abby:

    Interesting point of view… though I completely disagree. I’m a senior in high school with an average of 94%. I worked hard for this mark, and I’m proud of my efforts. It hurts me to hear that people believe this mark was “handed out to me” when I know it definitely wasn’t.

    @ TOstudents:

    Thanks for that comment. :) It really helps to hear words of encouragement!

  6. @ TOstudents:

    I realized after I posted my previous comment that I probably sounded sarcastic, but I didn’t mean to. I’m very happy to be reading about your successes. You’re right about the stress of keeping a high average in high school. It feels good to know that not everything relies on a couple of numbers.

  7. I think this paper really trivialises the problem. It goes beyong grade inflation.

    In my personal experience, I have found standardized tests and better admissions systems are better indications for a students success than marks.

    I go to Waterloo now, and I must say sometimes I don’t do as well in a course not because I don’t know it but because it simply isn’t challenging enough.

    Otherwise how else do you explain getting a 94% (and published in a journal) in my fourth year legal studies thesis course and me having to withdraw fail from my second year African Politics course (where half the things the teacher said was wrong, I would know, I lived and went to school in an African country and we basically watched poverty porn documentaries every week)

  8. When I started engineering at McGill 4 decades ago and my father 3 decades earlier the first comments from the Dean was “look to the right and left and recogonize you maybe the only one to finish”. In fact that was the case, I finished engineering but many friends did not. Nothing has changed in that nearly 2/3 of the initial engineering classes do not graduate. While graduating marks in highschool seem to be higher than in earlier years, the reality is that university can be much harder, more demanding and involves more independent work than highschool. One maybe the star at a particular highschool but only average when you get to a particular university. Too many highschool teachers ( and in many cases Parents) do not communicate the realities of university life to their students

  9. Up until the late 1960’s Ontario Secondary School Students eligible for honours graduation (grade 13) had to write Ontario Ministry of Education standardised examinations. An Ontario Scholar was one who received an average of 80% or more on their six best subjects. As such they received $400 from Toronto.
    In 1964 for example it cost $100 per subject at University of Windsor (extension program) and text books cost about $10 per subject.
    When the standardised exams were eliminated the $400 was sharply reduced and eliminated soon after. Strangely the number oh Ontario Scholars exploded, Schools with virtually no Ont. Scholars under standardised testing quickly had one out of every three students recognised as Ont. Scholars.
    With the announcement of full funding for the Catholic School System, compition for students began in ernest. Today every student in the system means thousands of dollars to the School Board.
    When students and parents judge the quality of a school system by the graduates’ marks, low marks does not attract students!

  10. Interesting article – but hardly new. I’m in my mid 50s and recall the same concerns being raised when I entered university in the 80′s. I think the problem is less about grade inflation and more about needing very different skills and support networks to survive those initial university years. I was surprised back then how much high-achieving high school students (I was definitely not one of them)struggled in their first year on campus. In high school, there are a lot of supports: good efforts are noticed and rewarded – so there is more immediate gratification to a job well done; there is a continuity among the student body so that teachers and peers know what you are capable of; there is a built-in structure to the day; and there are lots of external motivators (including parents). This is not the case in most universities. The classes in first and second year are huge; the professors don’t know their students well and may not care to; the social supports of high school aren’t there any more; and sadly, there is the realisation that no one cares (initially) if you work hard or not. As a result, students need to be intrinsically motivated to succeed and they need strong study and time management skills to cope with the lack of imposed structure. The first couple of years can be very hard for students to adjust to. High schools should collaborate with universities to find ways to set their students up for continued success.

  11. When I went to engineering in the 1960′s, my marks went up in engineering from what they had been in High School. I was in a senior matric high school, and there were a lot of good students, but I would guess less than 5% of the students got over 80% average in grade 12; that was after all of the non matric pattern students had been shunted off to another high school in town. Compare that with today’s grades given to hs students.

    As for the “look to the left and look to the right” routine in early first year; in my university they followed up by saying that by Christmas (of the first year) one of you wouldn’t be there. And by Christmas oe third of the class was gone. Note that these were students that had the rather rigorous requirements from hs to enter engineering.

    Do not dumb down the universities. If that happens, then employers will be left having to sort the wheat from the chaff.

  12. The thing that they’re not including is that most university students (an average of 75% across Canada) are working part-time or even full-time jobs along with their full-time studies. The number of students with jobs in the late eighties was around approx. 40%. Being a student is a different life then it used to be too, and time demands will take a toll on everyone’s grades.

  13. Try going back to standardized exams in the final year of high school and see what happens. In the 60′s students didn’t get these hysterically high marks. It became a free for all when schools started setting their own exams and they all wanted their kids to go to university so they dumbed down their courses so their students would be perceived as doing so well and get accepted. Marks have spiralled upwards ever since. When I was in high school very few students were getting an A and 93-94% overall was unheard of! You would receive an Ontario scholarship if your grades were over 80% and I think maybe 5 students in our school received that.

  14. Beth as someone who worked 30+ hours a week through high school and university, I have to disagree. Students have 30 hours a week to party their faces off, they could spend it studying.

    Grades drop because the students are not prepared for university. They want to hand back answers without having to think. Half my students can barely string two sentences together, never mind structure an essay with a coherent thesis. Basic math is beyond most of them.

    The “everyone wins a prize” approach to education has ruined this generation.

  15. I agree with Beth- working part time definitely takes a toll on marks!
    There have been situations where I know I could have done better if I didn’t have to work the weekend before a test, or exam, or have worry and stress from bills and mounting debt. I prioritize my schoolwork and I am able to organize what needs to be done, but when time is limited this is hard.
    A friend of mine had a horrible year because she was working fulltime and going to school fulltime. She couldn’t afford to be there otherwise. I wish to move on to graduate studies and to meet that goal marks matter, so it’s a battle that can’t be won: for those who MUST work to pay for their education.

  16. Yes, I agree with your article, it was true even in the late 1980′s in my first go-around in University. I was one of the top students in my high school, and did not have to work hard for good grades. In first year university I began to get B’s and C’s. I attributed this to not having any study skills, as I never really had to study in high school. The B+ students in high school were thriving in first year university as they already were better organized and knew how to study.

  17. As a grade 12 university prep teacher I know that students expect high marks for minimal work. But, in order to teach my courses, students must select them. If they don’t get good marks, or if I am perceived as a “hardmarker” no one takes my courses and I am out of a job. Plus, I feel pressure to keep in line with other schools. It is a difficult task to mark fairly when I know other schools are giving out high marks. That puts my students at a disadvantage and jeopardizes their chances of getting into university. I want to see students get their chance at university – if they blow it, then it is the consequence of their own actions and they have no one else to blame.

  18. Standardized testing: Yes
    Grade inflation: No
    Writing requirements for university entrance: Yes
    Basic arithmetic requirement (without calculator) for above: Yes
    Personal interview for above: ideal but probably not practicable

    High school should move inexorably from the relative playschool of
    Grades VII & VIII to a truly academic environment by Grade XII for all
    aspiring university entrants.

    I was graduated form H.S. in 1968 and taught university for 12 years in the period from 1968-1988. I found the level of capability to essay university level work to decrease noticeably during this period.

  19. Pingback: Media Talk: Your grades will drop | The Brock News

  20. As a an engineering student at the University of Waterloo I can completely empathize with Penner’s situation. I too, failed for the first time in my first year of univeristy – have never experienced such, I was quite the shock I found myself in complete denial.

    I also would like to highlight that while statisically, Matinello and Finely’s finding suggest that the tallest trees in high school fall the the hardest in university – this also has a lot to do with teaching at universities.

    When universities compromise teaching for the sake of research funding, students who were formerly accustomed to a certain standard of teaching suffer. It is a gross double standard that most students whether natively English speaking or not must pass a variety of English Proficiency Examinations before continuing their post secondary education, meanwhile professors with english so broken it makes Patwa sound like Mozart get a by.

  21. “When universities compromise teaching for the sake of research funding, students who were formerly accustomed to a certain standard of teaching suffer.”

    A certain standard? You mean rampant grade inflation?

  22. Here’s an idea. HS teachers can/should help with school/program placement. Just as with Master programs where you need referrals, it would be good if for Undergrads, the same would be considered.

  23. As a current undergraduate student, working part-time, and entering from high school with a 90%+ average, I think that this article is fairly reflective of my experiences. I saw my grades drop considerably, more in second year than in first, but even with lower grades I have won merit awards each year. The expectations are higher – and unreasonably high in some cases – than in high school, but I would argue that the main fault with high school education is that it does teach students what the expectations of different academic disciplines are. It is easy to go into university thinking of majoring in, say, English, and expecting there to be the same balance of creative writing and analysis that there was in high school, when in fact, creative writing and English literature are treated as entirely different subjects. High school subjects and university departments place value on different abilities that do not necessarily align, though they have the same name. Because of this, not all people end up in the discipline best suited to them early enough to graduate on time, and their marks are quite low in first year. It is a complicated situation, one that needs to be better addressed by universities and high schools cooperatively.

  24. Generally, high school is taught poorly and we end up doing students a disservice because they are NOT prepared to deal with the rigors of an engineering or science program. These so called selective schools have a tendency to make it very difficult to get in and then it very easy to stay in. Some schools are deceptively easy to get in but very very difficult to stay in the program; I would argue that it all comes out in the wash. Todays high school graduate expects that they will have things handed to them and feel that they do not have to do the work; this attitude explains the high percentages of students who lose there scholarships after first year and why the so called top high school students drop out of there respective academic programs after first year. It maybe just as well because the profession of engineering and science demands that its practitioners be willing to strive for new knowledge and not be complacent with doing the minimum and expecting high praise.

    In short university is the equalizer. It is a place where motivation, hard work and inspiration is rewarded. The high school system is broken and needs to be fixed because it simply does not prepare students to think and reason! Unless this issue is addressed, it makes absolutely no sense in giving high school students 80 and 90% averages unless they really mean something.

  25. I have a 97% grade 12 average (in a Nova Scotia HS). I get my work done and study when necessary, but I by no means stain myself with schoolwork. For that ridiculously high average, I think a kid really should have to work ridiculously hard for it. I don’t. And there at least 10 other students at my school with the same marks as me-or better. I find it absolutely hilarious how low standards are at high school nowadays. It feels like the school system’s sole purpose is to herd us students-dimmer ones included- along as quickly and efficiently as possible, even if/when we we don’t deserve to, with the concept of delivering a solid education being lost in the process.

  26. I totally agree with an A at one place is not an A at another school. I’m a grade 12 student in 12UBio and in my ridiculously high standard school, I’m earning a 60% while my friends at other schools are getting 90′s. I’m already getting a nice taste of first year.

  27. My daughter graduated from a very decent Toronto public high school with an 85 average with the intentions of becoming a nurse–that which her aunts, grandmothers and great grandmothers before her were. She was never what you would call studious yet she could apply herself well. On the other hand, she was well-liked, extremely sociable, athletic, musical and had even obtained a supervisory position with the city. Around the house, she grasped how things worked and readily helped out. She was accepted by both U of T science and Ryerson nursing. She accepted the U of T offer without much thought even though I was more against it then for it (I had graduated from Waterloo in science later in life after dropping out halfway through the math degree program following my high school); I knew full well how tough some of these courses can be. She is now in her third year and on academic probation. Her dreams are sinking. I couldnt possibly tell you how angry and hurt I am never mind how my daughter is coping. For sure, she is beginning to realize how tough life is. I have gotten her to agree to psychotherapy–I am sure when she is finished, you will be able to shoot bullets off her. Who knows, we may even move to another country somewhere we would be encouraged to succeed. It seems to me that in Canada now the reward is given to the unaccomplished not the accomplished and the trick is to be perceived as the former and not the latter. An old story where there is only one winner. We go not forward.

Sign in to comment.