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An A+ seen on a list of multiple choice questions.
Who gets to be a top scholar? (Shutterstock)

Are ‘top scholar’ students really so remarkable — or are teachers inflating their grades?

Schools in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are “handing out higher marks than ever before.”

This is according to a recent Toronto Star investigation into grade inflation. It asked: “Is runaway grade inflation holding top students back and setting others up to fail?”

The Star found that data indicate “Grade 12 averages are on a steady slope upwards and the number of kids entering university with a 95+ average has exploded.”

This question had me recalling summer media reports about “top scholars” graduating from schools in the GTA with average grades of 100 per cent.

Understandably, what accounts for the upward trend in grade averages is difficult to determine, since there are many complicated and nuanced reasons.

Nevertheless, among the reasons the Star investigation identifies is “the popularity of STEM courses” to boost averages.

When I examined reporting about the “top scholars” who received grades of 100 per cent, they were mainly taking science courses.

I wonder about the effects such media narratives have on youth who tend not to see their stories celebrated as “top scholars.”

A row of lockers seen, some that are sunlit.
Both teachers and the media play a role in students’ sense of themselves. (Shutterstock)

‘Top scholars’ coverage

Media reports of this year’s top students indicate that while some of them had averages of 99 per cent as in other years, others had averages of 100 per cent.

In an attempt to learn more about the trajectory of these “top scholars,” their school experiences, relationships with teachers and their ambitions, I examined media reports: four top scholars media reports in 2018-19, one in 2019-20 and in 2020-21 and 10 reports in 2021-22. I did not systematically review all coverage on top scholars, so my analysis is not based on a representative sample.

Of the 16 students in the sample — seven females and nine males, as they were identified — 10 attended Toronto District School Board institutions, five attended Toronto Catholic District School Board and one attended York Region District School Board. A majority of the students were first- and/or second-generation Canadians and mostly of Asian, white and South Asian descent.

Worked hard, adjusted to Canada

Some coverage of these top scholars advanced the narrative that some of their educational aspirations were, in part, motivated by the sacrifices their parents made to come to a new country.

One student, an immigrant from Afghanistan, was quoted as saying that his goal was to give back to his parents after they fled turmoil.

Another who immigrated to Canada from Turkey about four years ago was said to have learned English quickly, worked hard and was able to “adjust to Canadian culture.

Coverage spotlighted how youth were, in part, motivated by sacrifices their parents made to come to a new country. (Shutterstock)

Media narratives

Implicit in how these stories are framed is the notion that these students’ success is embedded with a commitment to their parents. However, given these students’ achievements, readers should also consider their determination to resist the scourges of inequity, xenophobia and racism.

Research indicates that information and narratives coming from the media influence people’s knowledge, attitudes, interpretations and beliefs about themselves and others. These narratives play a role in building and amplifying language and stories about people’s lives and how they relate to the wider world.

Repeated media presentations often function to feed myths, stereotypes and expectations of students based on their background.

STEM study, role of teachers

In my sample, 15 of the 16 students took at least four of their five or more courses during high school in mathematics and/or sciences. Eight of them planned to pursue engineering, while three planned on pursuing computer science or program at Canadian universities.

The positive schooling experiences and educational ambitions of these students could not have been accomplished independent of teachers.

Many of the students were quoted as saying that it was the relationships they were able to build with teachers that account for their successes.

One top scholar recounted to the Star:

“I was close to my teacher. We would talk after class and she would give me good feedback. I think it would be significantly harder to get 100 per cent if I had just left as soon as the bell rang. Also, I don’t believe I got 100 per cent on my own effort….”

Another student attributed his success to the “many times” he talked with his teachers about what he could do to improve on his work.

Many the students discussed how the relationships with teachers were integral to their successes. CC BY-NC

Bonuses

In a situation that would baffle many educators and students, one student even scored 100 per cent, even in English. Indeed, as one reporter asked: “How does one get 100 per cent in English?

The students’ accounts point to the key role teachers can play in guaranteeing the outcome some students fervently desire.

As a student shared:

“I’ll let you in on a bit of secret: usually for advanced placement courses, they’re considered much harder than academic courses, so toward the end, they don’t round up your average, but they give you a bonus. I achieved an average really close to 100 already and (100) was guaranteed with my bonus.”

Messages to students

Media coverage on top scholars risks sending the message that maths and sciences are more valued and it’s at least theoretically more possible to achieve perfect grades in those subjects. But as Ontario’s 2010 report on students’ assessment, Growing Success, noted, citing educator Ruth Sutton:

“It is worth noting, right from the start, that assessment is a human process, conducted by and with human beings, and subject inevitably to the frailties of human judgment. However crisp and objective we might try to make it, and however neatly quantifiable may be our ‘results,’ assessment is closer to an art than a science. It is, after all, an exercise in human communication.”

With reference to the issue of grade inflation it was noted that teachers “applied less weight to some tests.” One student said, speaking on the issue of grade inflation, she finds teachers have been evaluating students “with a lot of empathy.”

The high grades allude to how positive teacher–student relationships have a cumulative effect across students’ school subjects, and hence on their post-secondary aspirations — but we need to be concerned about the relationships that students with low grades have with their teachers.

Ultimately, as one of the top scholars – who said that he “figured out how to succeed within that system” – told the Star, “Grades are not a measure of intelligence.”

Grade inflation needs to be examined in a wider context of considering the opportunities presented to students or the learning designations applied to them to channel them into particular paths — and also how our media landscape affects the lives of youth.

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