'It was a joke': Students describe lax standards, easy high marks at private schools known as 'credit mills'
Universities seeing 'increasing concern' about potentially inflated marks from some private schools
Karina Levin's Grade 12 data management class that she took in the summer of 2017 wasn't like most of her other classes.
At Blyth Academy, a Thornhill, Ont., private school, she says she didn't get marks docked for spelling errors or failing to show all her work, like at her public school.
"It doesn't even feel like you're in school. It feels like you're having fun with your friends," she said of the class of 10.
When she pulled together a major assignment the night before it was due, she says her teacher allowed her to redo parts of it and resubmit it later — without any deductions. She got a 90.
"I just kept thinking: 'Well, we're paying you, right?"
She estimates that dozens of Grade 12 students in her public school cohort took at least one class at unaffiliated private schools, where for fees ranging from $400 to $2,700 per course, they could enjoy smaller class sizes — and a better chance at the marks needed to get into the university of their choice.
Universities have raised concerns about students submitting inflated marks from these schools, spurred by pressure to get into prestigious post-secondary programs at any cost.
According to Ontario's Ministry of Education, more than 30 elementary and secondary private schools in the province have had their credit-granting authority revoked since 2009.
A freedom of information request filed by CityNews in July revealed the reasons several private schools lost their credit-granting power, with one racking up infractions like "falsifying student attendance" and "routine practice of mark inflation."
Levin came out of Blyth with an 80 per cent in data management — enough to get into business technology management at Ryerson University.
"I definitely worked hard, but if I took this in public school, I would have to work at least four times as hard," she said.
A representative from Blyth Academy declined The Doc Project's request for comment.
High marks, low standards
After the Toronto Star published an investigation into these schools, also known as "credit mills," a 2013 report by the Ontario attorney general found that the rigour of private school inspections at the time was lacking, allowing credit mills to operate under their radar.
It noted that private school teachers "are not required to be certified by the Ontario College of Teachers," and cited an absence of minimum qualifications for school owners, principals and teachers.
The report laid out a number of recommendations, including tightening the inspection and validation process for private schools approved to grant credits towards an Ontario secondary school diploma, and establishing "corrective action" for schools that do not comply with the ministry's guidelines.
They would just give you the mark for free. For English, I barely showed up but ended up with a 90.- Former student at Alborz Educational Centre
In 2014, Ontario's Ministry of Education established a new team specifically tasked with monitoring private schools. Two years later, a follow-up AG report said approximately two-thirds of its recommendations were either fully implemented or in the process of being implemented.
But since 2012, the number of private schools in Ontario has grown from about 900 to 1,400. About 650 of them offer high school diplomas.
In a statement, a representative from Ontario's Education Ministry said credit-granting private schools are inspected "usually a minimum of once every two years." Those inspections may include "classroom visits, review of students' work, teacher assessment and evaluation of students' work, school policies/procedures, and the examination of student records."
Student journalist Naama Weingarten, who contributed to the reporting of this story, spoke to Levin and several other university students who say credit mills helped their own early academic successes. All except Levin declined to speak using their full names because they were worried it might adversely affect their academic future.
One student said he took four Grade 12 courses at Alborz Educational Centre at about $600 per course. He ended up landing a $4,000 scholarship at Ryerson's engineering program.
"They would just give you the mark for free. For English, I barely showed up but ended up with a 90. Almost everyone ended up with a 90," he said. "It was a joke."
A person reached by CBC Radio at Alborz Educational Centre, who did not want their name used because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the school, denied allegations that students coasted to high marks at the school.
"Students may have [said]: 'OK, it's not as hard as public school.' But it's not the level of the hardness [that] is important. As long as they get, basically, the knowledge that [is] required to go to university … that's the key."
Ontario's Education Ministry did not respond directly to The Doc Project's request for comment on students' allegations that it's still easier to get higher marks in some private schools than public schools despite inspections.
Challenge for university admissions
Ryerson's admissions registrar Charmaine Hack says she has seen "increasing concern expressed" over the last decade about credit mills from parents, high school guidance counsellors, and even some students.
"There's the banter, you know: 'Well, my friend was admitted, and I know ... they're terrible in math. But they went to X school, got a really good grade and now they've been admitted and I haven't been,'" she said.
She says despite her team's best efforts, it can be difficult to ascertain which marks are legitimate and which aren't.
If I had another chance to go back, I would definitely do the public school option.- Karina Levin
"The vast majority of private schools are excellent schools. It's the smallest percentage that we seem to spend increasingly more time [scrutinizing]," she said.
In 2010, Ontario added a "P" flag to denote courses taken at a private school on students' transcripts.
The 2013 AG report noted that from 2010 to 2012, "approximately 6,000 courses were taken by public school students at private schools, with two-thirds of these courses being at the Grade 12 level."
Hack says Ryerson is in the early stages of testing "a new series of data queries" that will compare students' marks from "P" courses with their first-year university marks, in the hopes of learning whether students from a particular private school see steep drops in their grades.
She estimates it will take a few years to accrue enough "actionable" data from these tools.
Andre Jardin, admissions registrar at the University of Waterloo, says in the past few years, his team has had to reallocate resources to address a growing number of potentially inflated marks from credit mills.
In addition to applicants' Grade 11 and Grade 12 marks, they can review marks from previous failed applications.
"You could have a student that had all grades in the 60s the last time they applied, and now they apply through a private school and their grades miraculously are all in the 90s," he said.
"When I have to choose between a student who consistently has those grades and a student who suddenly jumps up, I'm going to always choose the student that is consistent."
'I'm struggling, but at least I got to go'
Levin's first year at Ryerson was tough. She dropped out of two math courses, and says the course she took at Blyth didn't fully prepare her for how difficult the material would be in university.
"If I had another chance to go back, I would definitely do the public school option," she said.
Still, she says she's grateful for getting into the university of her choice.
"I'm struggling, but at least I got to go."
Jardin warns that the easier road afforded by credit mills will only yield disappointment in the long run.
"That kind of approach is going to get you nothing once you're here," he said.
"Put that energy into doing well in your courses at your school. Don't put that energy into finding a shortcut."
Story reported and produced by Julia Pagel with files from Naama Weingarten and edited by Acey Rowe. Written by Jonathan Ore.
- This story has been updated to remove the name of an individual who was not authorized to speak on behalf of Alborz Educational Centre.Jan 28, 2020 11:18 AM ET