University of Waterloo downgrading marks for some Hamilton-area applicants

Eight Hamilton and Niagara-region high schools are on a list created by the University of Waterloo's engineering faculty that downgrades the marks of applicants from those schools.

Grimsby Secondary, Ancaster High, Bishop Tonnos and more have marks downgraded for engineering admissions

A document used by the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo shows that students applying from some Ontario schools have their high school marks downgraded as part of the university's considerations. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Eight Hamilton and Niagara-region high schools are on a list created by the University of Waterloo's engineering faculty that downgrades the marks of applicants from those schools.

Students from two local schools — Grimsby Secondary School and Southern Ontario Collegiate — have their grades discounted the most.

Those schools rank first and third on a list that collects data on just how much student marks dropped on average from any given school once they entered the engineering faculty. Other schools like Ancaster High and Bishop Tonnos are also listed.

These averages are then used by Waterloo to more accurately measure the preparedness of prospective students on admission, the university says — in conjunction with admission forms and an optional interview process.

School boards say the numbers do not reflect the preparedness of its graduates, and question how determinations like this can be made with relatively small sample sizes.

But William Bishop, Waterloo's director of admissions for the faculty of engineering, told CBC News that the faculty feels it has accurate numbers to examine this as one piece in a "large and complex puzzle."

It's an insult to say anyone would be inflating marks.- Trish Nanayakkara, principal of Southern Ontario Collegiate

"We feel as though we have enough student data ... to apply the adjustment factor," he said.

"We look at a wide range of tools ... [and] if there is an exceptional applicant from any school, we'll find them."

The list was made public after an access to information request from Global News, which first reported about the issue.

Here's how it works. On average, students from Ontario high schools who get into Waterloo's highly regarded engineering program see their marks drop by 16.3 percent from their high school averages. Waterloo routinely gets around 13,000 applicants for 1,600 spaces.

But students from some schools, the university says, see their averages drop by much more than the average.

Grimsby Secondary, Ancaster High and more make list

Students from Grimsby Secondary School saw the starkest drop on the list, with their marks plummeting 27.1 per cent, the university's data says. Southern Ontario Collegiate came in third, with marks dropping 25.9 per cent from high school averages.

Other area schools on the list include Ancaster High School at a 21.2 per cent drop, and Bishop Tonnos Catholic Secondary School at 21.1 per cent.

Robert Bateman High School in Burlington clocked in at 20.8 per cent, while students from Governor Simcoe Secondary School in St. Catharines saw their marks drop 19.8 per cent.

St. Michael High School in Niagara Falls saw a drop of 23.7 per cent, and Sir Winston Churchill Secondary had a drop of 19.9 per cent.

University of Waterloo officials say the list "isn't meant to be a measure of grade inflation," but rather acts as a piece in a "large and complex puzzle." (University of Waterloo)

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said he is "confident in the work" schools from his board are doing. "They pride themselves on high expectations," he said.

Catholic board Chair Pat Daly echoed that sentiment. "The teachers are dedicated professionals who grade students accurately on provincial and board curriculum," he said.

But one issue, Figueiredo says, is a disconnect between how provincial high schools and universities are evaluating students. Ever since a provincially-mandated "differentiated assessment" for K-12 schools was brought in in 2010, schools have not been encouraging multiple choice tests and exams for some students, as they "don't meet the needs of students."

"So when they do go to university, some students do struggle," Figueiredo said. "Not all students demonstrate their learning in a paper/pencil task, or in a multiple-choice exam."

Figueiredo said even before the emergence of this list, he had been speaking with McMaster University about trying to find better ways to help students transition between high school and university. McMaster says it does not use a list like the one kept by Waterloo.

Looking for a 'frank assessment'

Rebecca Judd is a University of Ottawa student who recently graduated from Grimsby Secondary. She told CBC News that in high school, she was often getting marks in the mid-90s, while in university, her marks tend to hover in the mid-80s, which she feels is a more accurate depiction of her work as a student.

Judd says she would have preferred a "frank assessment."

"I personally see no benefit to sugarcoating students' performance, and neither do many of my ex-classmates," she said. "Which raises the question of, 'If administrations aren't always doing this for us, the students, for whom are they doing it?'"

Rebecca Judd graduated from Grimsby Secondary School. She's now a student at the University of Ottawa. (Rebecca Judd)

But Trish Nanayakkara, principal of Southern Ontario Collegiate, said her school's inclusion near the top of the list is "absolutely not" reflective her students' abilities.

"I think there's a good reason Waterloo kept this amongst themselves," she said.

She also questioned the school's methodology. Southern Ontario Collegiate is a small school of mostly international students. A graduating class of 40 students constitutes a "bumper crop," she said.

There are only two students from the school currently attending Waterloo, and neither of them are in the engineering faculty, she said.

Waterloo says the list is reflective of the last six years of admission data from a school. Nanayakkara said the university would have very little data to work with from Southern Ontario Collegiate, given small class sizes.

"I really don't know what it was based on … you wouldn't inflate marks. No teacher does that," she said.

"It's an insult to say anyone would be inflating marks."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.