On Grade Inflation and Learning: A Value Equation

by Mr. Hugh Burke

What our Students Learn in School

I have been talking a bit with parents in the school about the nature of the education that their children are receiving at the school. They have pointed out that their children could go to another school, and get higher grades with less work. I can only agree. But, in our school, we are most interested in learning, learning that is complex, and challenging, and rewarding.

Just for interest, you will find below some questions that our students are asked to answer on IB tests, as well as some questions that they composed for their individual assessments. You may want to try some of these, to see for yourself what our students can do by the end of grade twelve at this school.

It is possible to find many schools that award high grades for substantially less work, and work of poorer quality. We will not do that. With the IB, we are subject to international marking, at arm’s length. It is not a favour to students to give high grades that are not earned. There are several reasons for this.

Grade inflation leads to failure later on in life.

Right now, there is a Canadian university drop-out rate of about 1 in 6 students, mostly due to a lack of adequate preparation. Typically, students expect higher grades for less effort, and are shocked at the expectations of universities, even though many universities have eased up on their requirements. In 1980, about 40% of Ontario high school graduates had an A or A+ average. In 2007, it was 60%. It is higher now. Yet the universities are finding that students are less prepared than just a few years ago, and the university dropout rate is increasing. As well, employers are complaining about the lack of preparation of many of their new employees, even though these people got high grades in high school. Learning to earn credit is easier when one is young; learning it later on often leads to dismal results.

Accurate grading allows students to understand what is really required for success.

Universities and professions do not give credit for showing up, or for simple completion of work. Success requires real effort, and real results.

We do require rigour on the part of students and staff beyond academics, which is central to the IB and is generally an expectation at our school. That is students are required to be at school longer hours, we mandate their participation in co-curriculars, they must engage in service and we take their character development as central to their education, not as a secondary product. The programme also obliges them to take classes across all subject areas when they don’t have to in other settings. This is because we believe being well rounded intellectually is of value.

The rigours of the IB programme and the culture of our school are not just about university acceptance. There is an over-arching commitment to the growth of more fully developed students who will make positive contributions to the world beyond participation in post-secondary education.

Real learning only occurs when there is a challenging curriculum, and high expectations.

The International Baccalaureate courses provide exactly these conditions. Because of that, the grades that our students get are translated into much higher provincial marks, as I have noted before. A student with 28/45 points on a Diploma is granted immediate entry into second year at SFU; Imperial College (London) accepts IB students with 34 points. We currently have students – this year – who have been accepted on the basis of our predicted marks. They have been accepted into Ivy Business School, University of the Arts (London), George Brown College, Queens, UBC, SFU, Western Ontario (Science / Engineering / International Relations / Business), Waterloo, Hofstra, Penn State, Connecticut, University of Victoria, St. Louis, McGill, Acadia, Kings, Mt. Allison, and so on, often with multiple acceptances. I want to note that most of these are early acceptances, since many universities do not announce acceptances before April/May.

One of the reasons for this success is that the International Baccalaureate is notable for not inflating grades, and so universities have come to count on these grades as being significantly more difficult to achieve than other, inflated grades, and so value them higher. Now that there are few government exams, the international standards of the IBO are becoming more and more valuable. The value equation is clear: Challenge leads to success. In an upcoming letter, I also want to examine the value equation of the Learner Profile against those characteristics that professions and employers seek…

Now: Try some IB test questions for yourself!

Question Set One Question Set Two

Below, please find some Independent Assessments that our students carried out; these questions were composed and then answered by students.

Samples from a list of IA Titles

History SL:

  • To what extent did the work of sculptor Arno Breker promote Nazi ideology?
  • How significant was Hitler’s radio campaign in the context of Nazi propaganda between 1930-1933?
  • Was the policy of appeasing Germany the right policy for Great Britain between 1937 and 1939?
  • To what extent was the decoding of the Zimmermann Telegram responsible for American entry into World War I?

Math SL:

  • Feeding a Nation: How much does it cost to feed the United States?
  • How does the variance of ‘n’ in n-ominoes affect the number of shapes formed?
  • The Mathematics of Fraud


  • Determining Specific Heat Capacity by the Method Mixtures
  • Investigation of factors determining the flight of a paper helicopter
  • A vector analysis of momentum in 2-dimensions