Applied or academic: High impact decisions for Ontario students

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April 13, 2015

A new report recommends significant changes in Ontario high schools. According to the report, forcing students to choose between academic and applied courses in grade 9 is disadvantaging many students.

The report is based on survey results from 1,196 schools. It uncovers significant gaps between Ontario’s stated goals for students in secondary school and the reality on the ground. The report points to a continued failure rate for students in applied courses, but says there is a solution.

Gap between policy and reality

According to the report, the reality in Ontario schools looks substantially different from Ontario policies which point to the importance of a system that keeps “options open for all students” and that does not require students “to make binding decisions about a particular educational and career path.” Ontario policy also states that applied and academic courses are to cover the same “essential concepts” while responding to students’ different interests and needs.

Among the findings:

Students are making binding decisions in Grade 9:

  • 60% of students who take applied mathematics in grade 9, take the majority of their courses in the applied stream.
  • Only 3% of principals report that students transfer often or very often between applied and academic courses.

Students in applied are less likely to have all their options open:

  • A study of students in the TDSB showed that only 40% of students who started high school in applied, graduated after 5 years.
  • A provincial study showed that only 21% of students who took applied courses in grade 9 went on to college after graduating.
  • Over the last five years, success rates for students in applied English on the grade 10 literacy test have declined from 62% to 51%.

Courses do not cover the same essential concepts and choices are not being made based on interest or need:

  • An examination of the differences between applied and academic history and geography curriculum for grades 9 and 10 shows that applied students receive a significantly weaker citizenship education.
  • In the TDSB, only 6% of students in the highest income neighborhoods take the majority of their courses in the applied stream, compared to 33% of students in the lowest income neighborhoods.

The story of a “de-streamed” school

The report points to a small number of schools who have recognized the problems associated with setting students on different pathways based on choices made in grade 8. At Granite Ridge, a small K-12 school near Kingston, all students were placed in academic math, even if they had chosen applied.  Students who needed it were given extra help, and were told  that they could transfer to the applied math program in January if they found the academic program too challenging. They all chose to remain in academic math.

According to the principal, Heather Highet, the results have been significant:

  • teachers report that student behavior and ‘time on task’ has improved
  • students have gained new understanding that no one’s intelligence is “fixed” and of the value of working hard
  • 89% of grade 9 students achieved the provincial standard or higher on the EQAO math test – above the board and provincial average
  • 59% of the successful students had not reached the provincial standard on the grade 6 mathematics test.

Recommendations for change

People for Education’s report states that grade 8 is too early to require course decisions that could be potentially binding. While the organization lauds the considerable strides that Ontario has made in providing equitable learning opportunities for all students, they point to extensive evidence that supports delaying course decisions to a later point in secondary school.

For that reason the group strongly recommends that the decision be delayed until at least after grade 9.

To read the full report, click here.

To read the media release, click here.