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Critics call them ‘credit mills.’ But some students say private courses give them the boost they need

In high school, Saira Talut kept busy. She was a member of the model United Nations club and worked-part time at a fast food restaurant, all while keeping up an overall grade average in the 90s.

But she worried this wouldn’t guarantee her admission to competitive business and humanities programs at McMaster and Western University. So she turned to an independent private school in Scarborough, Ont., paying $500 for a Grade 12 calculus course at A+ Academy of Advancement.

The now third-year Western University student says the course offered smaller class sizes, flexible study time and opportunities for one-on-one support from instructors. 

She ended the course with a mark in the high 80s — 10 percentage points higher than a similar course she had taken a year earlier at her high school. 

In January 2020, CBC reported relaxed standards and potentially inflated marks from some independent private schools in the Greater Toronto Area. These schools are sometimes referred to as “credit mills” due to concerns from universities that they inflate students’ grades for a price. 

An empty classroom in Wexford Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ont.
Experts are raising concern over potentially inflated marks from some independent private schools. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But the demand for these courses appears to only be growing. In 2020, there were about 650 private schools in Ontario offering high school credit. As of May, there were 690 such schools. 

Talut says these courses can give students like her the little boost they need to get into “the program I really wanted, versus a program where I’m failing because I can’t get into anything else.”

Low self-confidence, academic pressure

Even though Talut was a top student, she says her self-confidence was low. She says there was a lot of social pressure to succeed at her academically rigorous public high school.

“I was constantly comparing myself to other people, whether that be in the form of scholarships, grades or program acceptances,” said Talut. 

Ontario private schools that offer for-credit courses are required to follow the curriculum and are subject to inspections.

Saira Talut during a high school football game
Attending an academically rigorous high school with a competitive environment, Talut says she never felt good enough, despite how well she was doing in her classes. (Submitted by Saira Talut)

In a statement, the province’s Ministry of Education said credit-granting private schools are inspected on a “recurring basis” for “requirements regarding curriculum, assessment and evaluation policies.”

The ministry says that when a school is inspected, the inspector will recommend another inspection in the same year, the following year or in two years, “as circumstances warrant.”

Support for marginalized students

Aware of the criticism of other credit mills over the years, the owner of Rouge Valley Education Centre, another private school in Scarborough, says it does things differently.

Selvin Gnanapragasam says he welcomes students from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds who he says have been failed by the public school system. He doesn’t charge kids from single-parent homes who are dealing with tough circumstances and cannot afford it, he says. 

“I don’t do it as a business. [Students] come here with the trust I’m going to educate them. The education we give is the one they’re going to use as a tool for tomorrow,” said Gnanapragasam.

He says he waives fees for about 50 students every year.

A tutoring centre in Scarborough, Ontario.
The Rouge Valley Education Centre is located in a strip mall near the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. It offers virtual and in-person classes for students. (Nishat Chowdhury/CBC)

All of the centre’s teachers are his former students and have a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, he says. While they aren’t certified teachers, Gnanapragasam says they are “experts” in their fields. 

Gnanapragasam says his priority is to support his students beyond academics.

“The best of you is hidden inside until somebody brings it out,” he said.

Two men sitting and posing for a picture in an office at Rouge Valley Education Centre in Scarborough, On.
Godwin Iwelomen, right, sent his son to Rouge Valley Education Centre when he began to struggle in Grade 11. He says Selvin Ganapragasam, left, welcomed his son with open arms and set him up for university. (Nishat Chowdhury/CBC)

Godwin Iwelomen sent his son to Rouge Valley Education Centre when he started struggling in his Grade 11 functions class, where he says his son lacked one-on-one time with his teacher.

“Those children who didn’t even consider going to university can become successful. My son can teach math now,” said Iwelomen.

Grade inflation’s ‘ceiling effect’ 

But some researchers still see the risks in students qualifying for post-secondary education with these types of courses on their record. Louis Volante, a professor of education governance at Brock University, says grade inflation has made it challenging for some institutions to see who truly stands out. 

“The grades have been inflated so high and we’re getting what we refer to as a ceiling effect,” said Volante. 

Louis Volante, a Brock University professor in the department of educational studies, is seen on the school's campus in St. Catharines, Ont., on Tuesday, February 1, 2022.
Louis Volante, a Brock University professor in the department of educational studies, says grading in high school is not as rigorous as it once was, which can lead to challenges for students when they enter university. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Volante added that this not only puts the students who attend schools with tougher grading at a disadvantage for admission, but it can also give other students a false sense of their academic ability.

“They’re both equally problematic,” said Volante. 

In the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo, an adjustment factor is tracked by comparing the grade average students come in with, to the average they end up with at the end of their first year. 

André Jardin, the admissions registrar at the university, says when the faculty started asking students for their high school transcripts rather than just their Grade 12 marks, many did not proceed with their application.

“We are not asking students from private schools for things that we don’t already get from other schools. We’re just ensuring that we have a complete picture,” said Jardin.

Last resort for busy students

Tomi Tufford says he was encouraged to take a private Grade 12 kinesiology course by his guidance counsellor, since his school didn’t offer it.

“I took it to have a little bit of prior knowledge before I go into first year to help me out,” he said of the $550 course from Ontario Virtual School in which he’s currently enrolled.

Working part time as a lifeguard, he couldn’t fit night school or summer school into his schedule. The virtual class, with pre-recorded lectures, offered him more flexibility. 

While it worked out for him, Tufford says self-directed learning is not for everyone. 

“If you’re someone who needs help throughout a course and you don’t have anyone around you that can help you with that, then it’s probably not the best option,” he said.

“If you have the option to go to school and learn it, I feel that’s a better learning experience. But if you are in need of a quick credit, and night school or summer school isn’t an option, it’s a pretty good alternative.”

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