Tyson Hamilton has a grade point average of 96 percent and was president of his high school’s student body, but the 12th grade student was not accepted into business schools at the University of Toronto, Queen’s or McMaster.
While Hamilton received offers from seven other university programs and is excited about his choice to enroll in a dual degree program at Western University this fall, he wonders why programs would turn down an A-plus student.
“If a 96 isn’t good enough, what is?” said Hamilton in an interview. “Where does it end? Does everyone need 100 averages to get started on these programs?”
His rejections are the result of a trend that shows an increasing number of high grade students vying for Ontario’s most coveted post-secondary spots.
The average Grade 12 grade of students enrolling in freshman programs at Ontario’s universities has risen steadily, according to facts compiled by the Council of Ontario Universities.
The data also shows a growing number of students entering college after achieving Grade 12 averages in the 95-plus and 90 to 94 ranges.
The trend is especially evident in the highly competitive university programs of business, engineering, and biological sciences, but is also evident among students choosing social sciences and liberal arts.
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“I think the problem now is that there is no consistency between schools.” he said. “A 96 in one school might be worth a low 90 in another.”
The data raises questions about why the numbers are rising and what it means for students trying to get into Ontario’s most competitive university programs. The answers are complex and nuanced.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario high school student grades had been rising gradually but steadily for years. It is a trend that has gained momentum since 2020.
“In the pre-COVID years, there is reason to believe that this could reflect higher achievement,” said Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies educational inequality.
Gallagher-Mackay attributes the rising numbers to a combination of efforts within Ontario’s school system to improve outcomes equity, moves to end student progression into applied courses, and shifts in immigration that prioritize more families indicated academic achievement.
However, the rise in numbers since the start of the pandemic is so dramatic that it can probably only be explained by other factors.
Data from the Toronto District School Board shows that the average grade 12 student’s grade rose from 71 to 77 in a two-year period after the start of the pandemic.
“That’s huge and pretty unprecedented,” Gallagher-Mackay said. The previous six-point increase lasted 13 years.
The data appears in a report by Gallagher-Mackay and Robert Brown, adjunct professor at York University, published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Why numbers are skyrocketing since COVID
Further research The pair — using data from six major school boards representing one-third of Ontario’s student population — found that the proportion of 9th grade students increased by an average of over 90 from 12 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 23 percent in 2020-21.
Much of that increase occurred in the spring of 2020, when the Ontario Ministry of Education issued a guideline that any student’s grade on any course cannot be lower than it was when the pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person classes .
The increase continued into the tumultuous 2020-21 school year, as many Ontario school boards shifted back and forth between face-to-face and remote learning.
Gallagher-Mackay attributes that increase in part to teachers changing their methods of assessing performance, giving students more opportunities to demonstrate what they’ve learned, with less emphasis on exams. She says teachers may also have used grades as a way to motivate and encourage students through the challenges of distance learning.
“I think the teachers’ strategy was to try to give students some hope and optimism, and I think it worked for most students,” she said. “If it really stressed the parents of kids who had previously had a 94 and are now fighting for a 97, that might have been good value.”
For universities, the rising number of high-achieving high school students can make it challenging to decide which students to accept into competitive programs.
Dwayne Benjamin, University of Toronto vice provost for strategic enrollment management, says grade inflation also creates challenges for incoming students.
“They may have an exaggerated sense of their own preparedness,” Benjamin said.
“Numbers are information. Digit inflation distorts the information and degrades the quality of the information,” he said. “To the extent that the numbers don’t mean the same one year after the next, it makes it difficult for everyone.”
Universities largely rely on the relative ranking of students based on grades (rather than the grades themselves) to predict which students are most likely to graduate, Benjamin said.
“Most of the time, if you have a five percent higher grade than your classmate in your high school, you’re more likely to get into the program,” Benjamin said. “But if you have a five percent higher average than a kid at another high school, that doesn’t necessarily make a difference.”
‘A stab in the heart’
Jeffrey Osaro, a 12th grade student at Toronto’s Northview Heights Secondary School, averaged 92 this spring when he applied to college programs. He was rejected from the bachelor of commerce programs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, and Western’s Ivey Business School.
Not getting into Ivey “was just a stab in the heart,” Osaro said in an interview. “I had set my sights on going to Ivey.”
Osaro said many people around him had given him high hopes for joining the program.
“Clearly there are (other) students who have accelerated, high-performing grades,” he said. “I can’t compare to that, but I do believe that I was a versatile student.”
He is a student trustee of the Toronto District School Board, volunteered with a program that taught hockey to children from low-income communities, served as a homework counselor with the Salvation Army, and was president of the Northview Student Council. He accepted an offer of Western’s bachelor’s degree in management and organization studies.
While a student six best grades in Grade 12 courses at university level are the standard benchmark, not all university programs in Ontario make admission decisions based solely on that grade.
Some programs place more weight on a student’s grade in certain courses, and highly competitive programs ask for additional information, including resumes and written statements.
The dynamics of supply and demand for places in certain programs have been more influential in pushing up averages than grade inflation, says Andre Jardin, the University of Waterloo’s associate registrar of undergraduate admissions.
“We have a lot of applications from a lot of great students, so that’s usually what raises our admissions averages,” Jardin said. “Essentially, you have to be the best student to even apply for these programs to have a realistic chance of getting in.”
The University of Toronto has not seen a significant drop in the retention rate of students successfully transitioning from first to second year amid the rising numbers, Benjamin says. Still, he says the faculty reports that incoming students seem to be struggling more than in the past, a factor likely attributable to the pandemic’s disruption to their high school lives.
“Graduates in high school will get you in, but you’ll really have to prove yourself in freshman year, which is more challenging for some than others,” he said.
Many high school students want to know what grades they need to be accepted into selective college programs. But the data provided by the universities of Ontario regarding admissions are not expressed as final grades for admission.
Instead, each university provides an overall average of Grade 12 grades for students enrolled in each program, and the percentage of enrolled students whose grades fell within five-point ranges (95 and above, 90 to 94, 85 to 89, etc.). ).
A few examples from the data:
At McMaster University, 50.4 percent of students enrolled in all first-year programs in 2017 had an average grade of Grade 12 of 90 or higher. In 2020, that share has risen to 63.9 percent.
At the University of Toronto, 52.5 percentt of students enrolled in the freshman engineering program in 2017 had a Grade 12 average of 95 or higher. In 2020, that had risen to 68.4 percent.
At Queen’s University, 31.5 percentt of the students who enrolled in the first year of bachelor of commerce in 2017 had a Grade 12 average of 95 or higher. In 2020, that had risen to 43.5 percent.