By Aloma Jardine
As appeared on page A1

Robert Laurie believes New Brunswick needs to expect more from its high school students.

“I think kids can do a lot more than they are being asked to right now,” he says.

Laurie, the director of education policy for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, has just completed a study of grade inflation in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, comparing the gap between the marks students receive from teachers and their provincial math exam marks.

“It is normal to a certain extent that you do get a gap,” he says, explaining class marks measure things provincial exams cannot, such as presentation of a project, plus (provincial tests) measure a whole year’s worth of materials and students are often nervous and tend to make more mistakes.

But while a certain gap is to be expected, Laurie says some schools have gaps that are much bigger than others, and that is what he is taking a closer look at.

Grade inflation worries Laurie because he has found schools whose average mark is closer to the provincial exam mark seem to do better on provincial exams.

A quick scan of his data on the province’s schools bears that out. Of the English-language schools which scored an average of 70 per cent or higher on their provincial exam, all but three had a grade inflation of 1 per cent or less. Of those who scored less than 60 per cent, the absolute lowest grade inflation was 7.5 per cent, but most fell into the 13 to 20 per cent range.

The school with the highest grade inflation – Southern Victoria High School in Perth-Andover – at 29.5 per cent, also had the lowest provincial exam mark, 45.5 per cent. Laurie says students’ marks should be a reflection of how much they have learned and how well they are meeting what is set out in the curriculum, otherwise schools are doing their students a great disservice.

“If I’m a student and I’m going to the exam with a good average, I assume I know what I should be knowing,” he says. “If I end up doing my best on the exam, but it is not good enough to pass or just barely, there is a lot questioning that goes on… You can extrapolate that. Kids will get to university in full confidence they are ready and may hit a wall and bomb out drastically.”

Laurie titled his study ‘Setting them up to fail?’ for that very reason.

“It’s important to note the last people that are guilty in this are the students,” he says.

District 2’s eight high schools have some of the lowest and the highest rates of grade inflation in the province.

Moncton High School and Harrison Trimble High School are two of the lowest at 1 per cent and two per cent respectively.

But the study found J.M.A. Armstrong/Salisbury Middle School had the third highest grade inflation rate in the province at 23 per cent.

The district’s other high schools range between 8 per cent and 14 per cent.

District 2 administers English-language schools in southeastern New Brunswick.

École Mathieu-Martin in Dieppe had a 5 per cent grade inflation, while École Louis-J.-Robichaud in Shediac actually has a 0.7 per cent deficit, meaning its provincial exam marks were higher than its teacher assigned marks.

At an average of 69.7 per cent, LJR’s average provincial exam marks were also the second highest among French-language schools and Moncton High School’s 76 per cent tied with Canterbury High School for top marks among English-language schools.

Norval McConnell, high school supervisor for District 2, says when students were still writing provincial exams, they used to compare how students did in class against how they did on the exams to help tweak school assessments.

Provincial exams in English language high schools were abolished in 2004, though French language high schools still have them in several subjects.

Laurie used Grade 11 math assessment data in the study, compiling a three-year average from the 2001-2002, 2002-2003, and 2003-2004 school years to obtain the French-language results, and a two-year average from the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 school years for the English-language results.

Although the elimination of provincial exams means there is no longer any way to track grade inflation in the English language system, Laurie says it is no doubt still occurring. He hopes the study will help spark discussion in schools on how to keep expectations of student performance high and accurately reflect their performance in their grades

McConnell says one thing the district is concentrating on now is making sure students in the same school are assessed in the same way for the same class, even if they have two different teachers. He says that kind of common assessment is another way to make sure the curriculum is being consistently delivered from class to class. The district hopes to eventually extend that co-operation from school to school so all students in the district are judged by the same standard.

“We want to make sure they all have the same opportunity to be challenged to the same level and the same curriculum,” he says.

Combating grade inflation may not be easy, but at least it’s free.

“Contrary to all the other initiatives you hear about in education, this one doesn’t cost a penny,” Laurie says. “All you need is a will amongst everybody that we are going to increase standards and expectations.”

Laurie says district staff, principals, teachers, and parents all need to be on the same page, so they can back up one another.

“If teachers start increasing expectations but aren’t backed up by principals and districts and phone calls start coming in from parents when the grades start going down, they’ll go back to what they were doing before. They cannot do it alone,” he says. “You have to increase fairly, but if you look at the things that students in other provinces are doing, compared to New Brunswick, there is a lot of room to increase expectations.”

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