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Private Courses Favored by Some Students Despite Criticism of being “Credit Mills” | Breaking:


In high school, Saira Talut was busy. She was a member of the United Nations Model Club and worked part-time at a fast food restaurant while earning an overall grade in the 90s.

But she worried that this wouldn’t guarantee her admission to competing business and humanities programs at McMaster and Western University. So she turned to an independent private school in Scarborough, Ontario, where she paid $500 for a Grade 12 calculus course at the A+ Academy of Advancement.

The now third-year student at Western University says the course offered smaller class sizes, flexible study time and opportunities for one-on-one instructor support.

She finished the course with a grade of around 80 – 10 percentage points higher than a comparable course she had taken at her high school the year before.

In January 2020, CBC reported relaxed standards and possibly inflated markers of some independent private schools in the Greater Toronto Area. These schools are sometimes referred to as “credit mills” because of concerns by universities that they are inflating student grades for a price.

Experts are concerned about possible inflated grades from some independent private schools. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But the demand for these courses only seems to increase. In 2020, there were approximately 650 private schools in Ontario offering high school credits. In May there were 690 such schools.

Talut says these courses can give students like her the little push they need to get into “the program I really wanted, rather than a program I can’t fail because I can’t get into anywhere else.”

Low self-confidence, academic pressure

Although Talut was a top student, she said she lacked self-confidence. She says there was a lot of social pressure to succeed at her academically rigorous public high school.

“I was constantly comparing myself to other people, whether it was in the form of scholarships, grades, or program acceptances,” Talut said.

Private schools in Ontario that offer college credit courses are required to follow the curriculum and are subject to inspections.

Saira Talut during a high school football game
In an academically strict high school with a competitive environment, Talut says she never felt good enough despite how well she did in her classes. (Submitted by Saira Talut)

In a statement, the province’s Department of Education said credit-granting private schools are inspected “on a recurring basis” for “requirements related to curriculum, grading and evaluation policies.”

The ministry says that when a school is inspected, the inspector will recommend a new inspection in the same year, the following year or in two years, “as circumstances warrant”.

Support for marginalized students

Aware of criticism from other credit mills over the years, the owner of Rouge Valley Education Centre, another private school in Scarborough, says it is doing things differently.

Selvin Gnanapragasam says he welcomes students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds who he says have been let down by the public school system. He doesn’t charge for children from single-parent families who face difficult circumstances and can’t afford it, he says.

“I don’t do it as a company. (Students) come here with confidence that I’m going to teach them. The education we’re giving is the education they’re going to use as a resource for tomorrow,” said Gnanapragasam.

He says he waives tuition fees for about 50 students each year.

A tutoring center in Scarborough, Ontario.
The Rouge Valley Education Center is located in a strip mall near the University of Toronto campus in Scarborough. It offers virtual and in-person classes for students. (Nishat Chowdhury/CBC)

All of the center’s teachers are former students and have master’s degrees from the University of Toronto, he says. While not certified teachers, Gnanapragasam says they are “experts” in their field.

Gnanapragasam says his priority is to support his students outside of academia.

“The best of you is hidden inside until someone brings it out,” he said.

Two men sit and pose for a photograph in an office at the Rouge Valley Education Center in Scarborough, On.
Godwin Iwelomen, right, sent his son to the Rouge Valley Education Center when he struggled in 11th grade. He says Selvin Ganapragasam, left, welcomed his son with open arms and sent him off to college. (Nishat Chowdhury/CBC)

Godwin Iwelomen sent his son to Rouge Valley Education Center when he was having a hard time in his 11th grade, where he says his son missed one-on-one time with his teacher.

“Those kids who weren’t even considering going to college can become successful. My son can teach math now,” Iwelomen said.

Figure the ‘ceiling effect’ of inflation

But some researchers still see the risks in students who qualify for post-secondary education with these types of courses on their record. Louis Volante, a professor of education management at Brock University, says grade inflation has made it challenging for some institutions to see who really stands out.

“The numbers are inflated so high and we get what we call a ceiling effect,” Volante said.

Louis Volante, a Brock University professor in the educational studies department, is seen on the school's campus in St. Catharines, Ontario, on Tuesday, February 1, 2022.
Louis Volante, a professor at Brock University in the educational studies department, says high school grades aren’t as rigorous as they used to be, which can lead to challenges for students as they enter college. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Volante added that this not only puts those students who attend schools with more rigorous grades at a disadvantage in admissions, but it could also give other students a false sense of their academic prowess.

“They’re both equally problematic,” Volante said.

In the engineering faculty at the University of Waterloo, an adjustment factor is followed by comparing the grade point average students enter with to the average they finish at the end of their first year.

André Jardin, the university’s admissions officer, says that when the faculty started asking students for their high school transcripts instead of just their grade 12, many didn’t follow through with their applications.

“We don’t ask private school students for things we don’t already get from other schools. We just make sure we have a complete picture,” Jardin said.

Last resort for busy students

Tomi Tufford says he was encouraged by his counselor to take a private grade 12 kinesiology course because his school didn’t offer it.

“I assumed I had a little bit of prior knowledge before I went into freshman year to help me out,” he said of the Ontario Virtual School’s $550 course that he’s currently enrolled in.

Because he worked part-time as a lifeguard, he was unable to fit night school or summer school into his schedule. The virtual class, with pre-recorded lectures, gave him more flexibility.

While it worked for him, Tufford says self-directed learning isn’t for everyone.

“If you’re someone who needs help during a course and you don’t have anyone around to help you with that, it’s probably not the best option,” he said.

“If you have the option to go to school and learn it, I think that’s a better learning experience. But if you need credit fast and night school or summer school isn’t an option, it’s a pretty good alternative.”

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