Many Western faculties saw a sharp increase in the percentage of undergraduate students getting As and Bs in the 2019-20 school year — a spike that's part of a larger pattern over the past decade.
Faculties such as Arts and Humanities, Health Sciences and Social Science show a clear upward trend in the percentage of As and Bs distributed in undergraduate courses over the last 10 years.
“Grades are supposed to demonstrate or communicate a student’s level of competence at the completion of a course,” said Sarah Elaine Eaton, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. “A high grade is meant to demonstrate high levels of competence and lower grades are meant to demonstrate more limited levels of competence.”
Eaton is concerned about grade inflation at the post-secondary level and co-facilitated a presentation on the topic in 2019.
The Faculty of Science saw the largest spike, with an eight per cent increase in the percentage of As and Bs distributed in the 2019-20 school year. The Faculty of Social Science saw a 7.7 per cent increase, the Faculty of Engineering a 6.5 per cent increase and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities a 5.7 per cent increase.
The total undergraduate grade distribution includes both 1000 level and upper-year courses.
The Faculty of Information and Media Studies saw the smallest growth, with only a one per cent increase.
According to Western's vice-president academic programs, John Doerksen, 2019-20's increase in As and Bs could be attributed to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on course grading approaches and flexibility provided to students, including the ability to request April 2020 grades be issued on a pass-fail basis or to drop courses towards the end of the school year.
When Western moved classes online last March, it was the start of massive changes for campus — classes from March 13 to March 17 were cancelled and exams rescheduled. Tensions were high among the student body and in response, the university extended the deadline for students to declare a course a pass-fail credit and to drop a course without academic penalty.
“We have professors really working very hard to give students the benefit of the doubt in recognizing that it was just a really difficult situation,” said Doerksen.
“We continue to have some of those same elements to this day. But I think we now have more systems in place to support entire [online] course delivery and all that — I think Western has done a good job there. But in any case, we certainly saw a significant spike in grade averages in Spring 2020.”
Compared to upper year courses, first-year courses saw a more significant spike in the percentage of As and Bs last spring.
Undergraduate grade distribution for first year courses showed the Faculty of Social Sciences increased the awarding of As and Bs by 12.2 per cent. Similarly, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities saw a 10.4 per cent increase and the Faculty of Engineering a 7.8 per cent increase. Even the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, which had a one percent overall increase, saw a 6.7 per cent increase in the As and Bs given out in first-year courses.
At the upper year level, the Faculty of Science saw the largest spike with an 8.4 per cent increase in As and Bs. The Faculty of Social Science saw a 6.2 per cent increase and the Faculty of Engineering a 6.1 per cent increase. There were no increases in the amount of As and Bs awarded within the Faculty of Information and Media Studies in upper-year courses.
Doerksen said he was not able to comment on the different marks between first-year and upper-year courses.
Eaton said it's still too soon to know how the 2019-20 spike in As and Bs will impact overall trends in grade distribution.
“I’m not sure that we’ll know the impact of COVID-19 on grade assessment until after the pandemic is well and truly over,” said Eaton, adding that it could take at least five years after the pandemic to understand it’s impact on students, learning and assessments.
Eaton said if the increase in As and Bs is a sign of grade inflation, the problem isn't isolated to Western.
Doerksen does not attribute the higher grades seen in some faculties to grade inflation at Western, but rather a sign of better academic preparation at the high school level.
Despite believing Western's higher grades is due to a stronger applicant pool, Doerksen admitted there probably is some grade inflation in the high school system.
Waterloo compared the final high school marks of students admitted to the university to their marks at the end of first year. Some high schools had large gaps, some had small ones — Waterloo called the gap the “adjustment factor." Their data showed that the average Ontario high school had an adjustment factor of 16.3 per cent.
“But the difference at Western — Western’s admissions data — is that our entering grades are going up and have over the years gone up quite a bit faster than the overall increasing grades in the system,” Doerksen said. “I’m actually looking at that as an indicator of stronger academic preparation, even in the context of whatever grade inflation there might be.”
“I think that there are a number of different factors but fundamentally it doesn’t surprise me that the number of As and Bs have gone up over the years," he said.