The collapse of standards in high schools is a boring refrain. All too many first-year university science students cannot do single-digit multiplication. If you don’t believe me, just ask a student to evaluate 7 times 9. A young lady claiming to have an Honours BSc from a historic Toronto institution answered “64, no 56.” Forget about asking to evaluate a fraction, let alone a trigonometric function. The problem, of course, is the calculator addiction. Few students recognize a stupid answer means they have hit the wrong button.
Writing ability isn’t much better. One professor, upon receiving the first chapter of a Master’s thesis from a Canadian-born student, stated “Your first sentence lacks a verb.” “What’s that?” was the reply.
The situation is frustrating for all involved in education. Pressure is exerted on high school teachers to water down curriculum and pass students. In Ontario, universities use the highest six Grade 12 subjects to determine admission and award scholarships. This can mean big bucks. A student having an average over 90 percent can receive a total of $10,000 in scholarships over four years if they maintain an A average. Unfortunately, most first-year university students see their grades plummet. At York University, only about one percent of students entering with a high school average between 80 and 85 percent keep their “renewable” scholarships.
The problem is grade inflation as well as wildly different standards between high schools. The real victims are conscientious students who are penalized for taking tough courses such as Grade 12 French or Physics while classmates enrol in fluffy subjects to boost their grade average. Some schools even have trouble finding enough students to offer Grade 12 French. An obvious answer is a return to mandatory province-wide exams but that is not politically saleable.
A positive alternative is to offer every high school graduate the option of writing a “Provincial Scholar” exam. It would cover five equally weighted subjects: English, French, history and geography, science, and pre-calculus mathematics (excluding calculus would ensure that not only science and engineering geeks could do well). The prize should be substantial, say $5,000 for each of four years at any provincial university or college to study whatever she/he desires. The only requirement to keep the award would be to take a full course load and maintain a B+ average.
The “Provincial Scholarship” would encourage students to have a broad education and not merely take courses chosen by their parents as “career enhancing.” Shouldn’t every Canadian be able to comprehend both official languages? An appreciation of our nation’s history and its place in the world is critical in the global 21st century. Everyone needs to understand the rudiments of science to converse knowledgeably with their doctor if God forbid they are diagnosed with cancer. A mathematical background would allow voters to discern it isn’t possible for a politician to deliver tax cuts, new programs and balance the budget.
This program would offer all graduating Grade 12 students a level playing field. The exam difficulty should be such that on average about 10 students in every high school graduating class would become Provincial Scholars. It would challenge young people but what’s wrong with that! Past exams would be made public to help students prepare. High schools would undoubtedly engage in a friendly competition that would further lift standards and benefit all students.
How much would this program cost for Ontario, Canada’s largest province? Multiplying 10 students by about 700 high schools by $20,000 comes to $140 million. Can we afford not to invest in our children and fairly reward true academic excellence?
William van Wijngaarden is professor of physics at York University and is a past chair of York’s Senate.