It was a beautiful October day as a group of about 20 high-school students and their parents milled about outside the offices of the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo, waiting for the tour to start. Many had taken off their jackets as the afternoon temperature climbed into the mid-20s. Engineering students—most dressed in trademark jeans and T-shirts—dodged their way between the young visitors, greeting friends with high-fives and talk about Friday night plans. Attentions focused when tour coordinator Shirley Norris appeared. “Okay,” she announced, “we’re going to break everyone into smaller groups. Those interested in electrical or computer engineering can go with Jean-Michel and Mark.” She gestured toward the upper-year student guides, standing on the outer edge of the hall. Two high-schoolers stepped forward.
Adrian Falcomer, 16, and Jesse Haber-Kucharsky, 17, have come with their parents to take a look at one of the country’s most competitive engineering programs. The students had never met before but it turns out that, no surprise, they have a few things in common: both are from the Toronto area, both are in Grade 12, and both hope to one day become full-fledged, ring-bearing engineers. The tour gets off to a slow start as Falcomer and Haber-Kucharsky’s parents begin to ask questions. Lots of questions: starting with co-op placements, moving on to residence spaces, back to co-op placements, on to tutoring and special help services, back again to co-op placements. Then there’s a bit about the pub and the activities for underage students. And then the question everyone’s been waiting for: “What marks did you apply with to get in?” Haber-Kucharsky asks the student tour guides. High-schoolers and parents alike move in a little closer to hear what Jean-Michel and Mark have to say.
Haber-Kucharsky, who attends North Toronto Collegiate Institute in midtown Toronto, and Falcomer, who attends Maple High School in Maple, Ont., a bedroom community just north of Toronto, are both excellent students with marks in the 80s and 90s. But is an 85 per cent at North Toronto equal to an 85 per cent at Maple High School? Or does a university, considering for admission two students from two different high schools, have to adjust the grades, like converting kilometres to miles or metres to feet? The question is one many universities are uncomfortable answering. But some universities are willing to admit that not every 85 is an 85—and that they do, sometimes, adjust grades when weighing applications.
Waterloo is one of those universities.
Over the years, there has been significant grade inflation at the nation’s high schools—for example, the average grade of an Ontarian entering university rose from a 76 per cent in the mid 1980s to over 82 per cent in 2003. But that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem for university admissions officers: it doesn’t matter whether average is 76 or 176, so long as everyone is being graded on the same scale. But in some provinces, there is no common scale. Standards vary, because many provinces—Ontario being the prime example—do not have standardized provincial tests. Each school grades differently.
In the late 1990s, administrators at the University of Western Ontario did a study. The purpose: to find out whether some Ontario high schools were academically more challenging than others, and to determine whether high schools had different grading standards. Greg Moran, at the time Western’s provost and vice-president academic, headed up the project. “The only reason we were really interested in students’ grades is because in an institution of this size, grades are the best indicator we have to judge whether students are going to do well,” said Moran. “We don’t [want to] put students into a situation where they are not going to succeed. That’s a big part of the job.”
Moran’s researchers looked at the average grade that high-school students achieved in their first year at Western, and compared it to their entering average from high school over a five-year period in the late 1990s. The difference—referred to as the “grade drop”—showed a 14 per cent decline in the average student’s grade. But “it varied from school to school,” said Moran, “with some schools experiencing no average grade drop.” Students from other schools, on the other hand, saw average grade drops of “much more” than 14 per cent. Western had asked the question of whether an 85 at Apple High meant the same thing as an 85 from Orange Secondary, and had discovered that the answer was “No.”
Moran shared his findings with high schools, the provincial government, and other universities. In doing so, Moran hoped they could work together to create a province-wide initiative to collect the data, controlled for factors like second languages and socio-economic differences. The response was lukewarm. “It’s a shame,” says Moran. “We need informed decision-making.”
In the end, Western used the data in admissions, but only on a limited basis. “If we still had space remaining at the end of the day, rather than lowering the standards, we would look at students who were very close to the cut-off but came from some of the better schools,” says Moran. “We used it in a modest way.”
Many universities, however, say that they are opposed to tracking and ranking high schools. A spokesperson at the University of Toronto gave an unequivocal “no” when asked if that institution ranked high schools. Laurie Pushor, admissions director at the University of Saskatchewan, said the same: “Why? If there is a drop in marks, is it the students’ fault or is it us? We’ve set the criteria. Our job now is to help them be successful.”
Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., does not adjust high-school grades, but tries to somewhat downplay the role of marks by asking applicants to provide a “personal statement of experience.” According to university registrar Jo-Anne Brady, it is Queen’s policy that “no more than 20 per cent and not fewer than five per cent of the classes will be admitted on the basis of more than just marks.” That’s where the personal essays come in. For some highly competitive programs such as commerce, she says that admissions officers read almost all the statements because of the high number of students with averages above the “admissions selective range.”
At McGill University, where more than half of the undergrads come from overseas or another province, administrators have gathered information to try to compare high-school grades from different jurisdictions. But according to Morton Mendelson, deputy provost of student life and learning, after completing an “informal” study, the university was “satisfied” that kids from other provinces were doing as well as students from Quebec. “That’s partly because the students we get are in the top 10 per cent of high school,” says Mendelson. “We’re so far over the level of where students succeed. Even if a 90 per cent in Province A is only 85 per cent in Province B, 85 is still good. We get the best of the best.”
Yet there are other universities who say they find comparative high-school data quite useful. Sean Riley, president of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., says that the information from interviews with students, personal essays, portfolios, along with data ranking high schools, is helpful, particularly when deciding who is more deserving of a scholarship. Riley says St. FX evaluates each high school that has had at least 10 graduates at the university. “We do pay attention to certain schools,” says Riley. “We consciously look at students and we have a good idea year after year of the fall-off rate and where [the student] is coming from. It gives us an idea of the high-school differential.” Riley noted that St. FX often asks high schools to provide a ranking of where a prospective student stands in relation to his classmates.
The issue of ranking high schools is a land mine that many educators and politicians would rather not touch, because it inevitably leads to a debate about a third rail of the teaching establishment: standardized high-school tests. They exist in several provinces, such as Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, but have long been opposed by the educational establishment in Ontario. Which leaves a university like Waterloo looking for other means to accurately evaluate its applicants.
Grade 12 students Haber-Kucharsky and Falcomer are still waiting for the student tour guides to answer their question about grades. Everyone in the group knows that a student needs good marks to get into Waterloo. According to figures released by the university, the entering average for Ontario high-schoolers admitted to Waterloo’s engineering program last fall was 88.1 per cent. Fewer than three per cent of those admitted had an average below 80 per cent. And just shy of four out of 10 of those admitted to the program had an average of more than 90 per cent, with nearly a quarter of those over 95 per cent.
What neither the students nor their parents realize is that during the application process the admissions department for the faculty of engineering may very well be considering an internal ranking of Haber-Kucharsky and Falcomer’s high schools. For more than 25 years, according to Kim Boucher, associate director of undergraduate engineering admissions, Waterloo’s engineering program has collected and compared students’ high-school averages with their marks from first-year university. Based on this data, each high school has been assigned what is known as an adjustment factor, shown as a percentage. So if Apple High has an adjustment factor of minus-five per cent, then any student who applies may have that much deducted from their high-school average.
So what’s the adjustment factor, if any, for North Toronto or Maple High? It’s not something Waterloo is willing to talk about. According to Boucher, making those numbers public would be misleading to potential students. “It’s just one of many things we consider,” said Boucher. “It’s used very, very carefully. It’s a complex process so to just simply say two numbers is misleading.”
She describes grade adjustment as “just one small factor in the overall consideration,” and a factor whose weight has been reduced in recent years. “There is no mystery to the process,” she said. “I have students ask me what is the trick? And seriously, there is no trick.” But the adjustment factor at Waterloo engineering, as at other universities that use this approach, and the degree to which it weighs into the admission decision, is not made public.
So what high school marks did the student tour guides have in order to be accepted into engineering at Waterloo? Jean-Michel says he got a 94 per cent. Mark says he had an 86—plus “a lot of extracurricular.” Nobody asks about the ranking or adjustment factor for their high schools. Nobody knows to ask.