I wrote this feature in '08 or '09 before Toronto Star ran its "credit mills" stories.
Most students would be happy with Sam Lee’s Calculus mark of 82 per cent. But like many other grade 12 students competing for acceptances into high-profile programs, Lee’s 82 per cent was just not enough.
Lee had to retake this course for a better mark, - immediately, - before University acceptances. It cost him $500 for his new credit, as opposed to one that could be publicly funded, however, Lee would be guaranteed an impressive mark for his University to look at. Lee received just what he needed; a promising final mark of 95 and an acceptance letter to Schulich school of Business.
Although private credit schooling has been perceived as an alternative for students under complications in day school, a growing number of average or above-average students are choosing to pay for their marks at a privately-owned institution in hopes to raise their averages.
Officially, every educational institution in Ontario that is certified by the Ministry of Education is approved to have met curriculum standards. Whether public or not, a school’s credit is considered equally legitimate, as long as the school is approved by the Ontario’s district school board. But some argue that the legitimacy of a private school credit is questionable.
About 5% of all Ontario students attended private schools last year. According to the Eyeopener who obtained general records of four Toronto private schools with a freedom of information request (FOI), over 60 per cent of students enrolled at each private school were taking Grade 12 credits.
Cindy Park walked into private school thinking it was going to be easy, but soon realized that she was wrong. She got a final mark of 65 per cent, which was barely going to get her into University. Park was not going to let her money go to waste. After negotiating with the principal of the school, her mark was bumped up to a 91.
A student can enroll in a private school class starting at $500 a piece, but attaining a credit is no piece of cake: once enrolled, students must meet a certain number of required hours, usually three-hour classes, two nights a week for one semester. What could happen, however, is the bumping up of final marks.
Private schools are more lenient with grades, says Diana Rodan, a student at the Schulich School of Business who took two grade 12-courses in private school. She said, “You’re not paying for the quality of the education, but for the mark that will get you into a University.”
“It is often perceived as an easier credit,” said Vincent Chow, guidance counselor of Richmond Green Secondary School. “Some feedback from students tell that some schools are giving watered-down courses.”
Last year at Richmond Green, just under 20 per cent of the graduating class took private school courses. These were mostly Math and English credits with some sciences, - compulsory courses that are certainly offered at day school. This number has stayed steady for the past two years.
Paul Lamana, who took Data Management at private school, said that private school was only easy because it was easier to cheat. He said that he did not learn anything, although he earned an 87 in the course.
“Our exam turned out to be a complete joke, we ended up sitting around a table when the teacher was out of the room, comparing our answers,” said Lamana. “One of the girls snuck out with the exam, called her Advanced functions teacher and got all the answers. It was a joke.”
316 of the 900 private schools in Ontario are eligible to grant credits towards the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Many of these schools market themselves toward anxious grade 12 students, including Freemont Academy who states that 97% of their grads have been accepted into Universities.
“I told my principal that I needed to maintain a certain average to get a scholarship,” said Rodan. “I told her that I paid a lot of money for this, and the least she could do is bump up a couple marks. I ended up with a 91 when my actual mark was something in the 80’s.”
Student testimonies such as these make the legitimacy of private-school marks questionable. A major concern about private institutions is the fact that they may oversee the importance of proper grading as they can be seen as a profit-driven company.
Some students say that they received discounts or ‘deals’ if they took more than one class or recommended their friends. Spokesperson of the ministry of Education, Steven Robinson, says that private schools are considered businesses in Ontario.
When private institutions are not giving their students the marks they want, they may lose business. Majority of students find private schools through the word of mouth, and the higher the grade, the more appealing it is. The private school has no choice but to supply students with the marks they are asking for.
Susan Logue, Principal of Richmond Green Secondary School, says that when money is involved, people’s motivation may become clouded.
“I’m a strong supporter of the public school system which is not-for-profit. Any students who get 80’s at our school I know that they’re ready,” said Logue. “Students who go into University with these inflated marks, they will have a harder time when they get to university.”
Vincent Chow, guidance counselor of Richmond Green Secondary School, said that private school marks have appeared ‘suspicious’ in the past. He sees many cases where a student who has been getting 60’s in grades 9, 10 and 11, will land an 85 in private school, - a significant increase in the percentage.
“Sometimes universities and colleges won’t see that pattern, but we do,” said Chow.
The topic of Private school credits is something that frequently comes up at York Region District school board meetings. Chow says that meetings have been held about this topic, as it has been a concern for a lot of guidance counselors. However, no policies have been set and the topic remains in the air.
“We talk about possible strategies, - what we can do to make sure that these students are getting the education that they deserve. But if the ministry of education says that they [private schools] are eligible, there is nothing we can say.”
It has only been a few months since the law was passed to place ‘P’ notations representing private school credits on Ontario Student Transcripts. Spokesperson of the Ministry of Education, Steve Robinson, says that this is meant to give a heads-up to receiving post-secondary institution so that they can do whatever they wish with their due intelligence. Although Universities and colleges may not have policies about this, it is up to the them to judge the value of the credit.
The admissions office at Ryerson University states that there is no regulation regarding private school courses because any ministry-approved school is treated equally. At the same time, University of Waterloo says they are treating this matter a bit more seriously.
University of Waterloo states on their web page that they will treat all credits equally, however students who have taken courses outside of their regular day schools will be required to fill out an Admission Information Form. Paula Petrie, Admissions assistant at the University of Waterloo says that this form is a way to weed out some of the many applicants.
The University also states, “If you have taken or are taking courses outside of regular day school and have applied to a program in the Faculty of Mathematics, in some cases your overall admission score will be adjusted.”
Petrie says that a lot of the employees in the admissions depart have the same opinion: some students are switching from public to private for one or two courses for a better mark. According to Petrie, the University of Waterloo keeps a list of private schools to keep tabs on institutions that are suspected to be ‘shady’ from past experiences.
“We know which ones are not so honest. Basically we can see what’s going on, along with the rest of the universities,” said Petrie. “But at this time, we are not the ones that can actually say anything. We have to go by what they say.”
In order for a private institution to become certified to give out credits, a letter of intent must be passed to the Minsitry of Education. Then, they must pass an inspection, which checks that the school is meeting instructions related to the curriculum.
They do not necessarily have to look like schools; they can be in a basement. Susan Logue, Principal of Richmond Green Secondary School, says that students taking courses at these unprofessional settings are put at a disadvantage and that these places need to be monitored carefully.
In response, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Education Steve Robinson said, “It’s always an issue in terms of ensuring that these schools are meeting our standards. The students need to be aware what they’re getting themselves into.”
There are 22 Education officer inspectors in Ontario at several locations including Barrie, London and Toronto. Inspection usually takes place every other year, depending on the school. Robinson said that a two-year inspector regime has worked well in the past and officers are willing inspect more frequently if required.
Robinson says that the inspection can be via ___, the private schools sending in requested information. It may be an arranged inspection to ensure that students and principals are in attendance, or inspectors could be reviewing the school, records, and transcripts. It can take up to a day.
“We are not in the business of trying to hound private schools,” Robinson said. “But We take very seriously the fact that these schools are given the permission to do give out credits.”
“The truth is, students walk into private school with a different attitude,” said Rodan. “No matter how serious you may take it, you will enter with the notion in your mind that private school is going to be easier.”