The trouble with course choices in Ontario high schools

Our news & views

April 29, 2013

According to a new report from People for Education, Ontario needs to begin to address serious problems in course choices for students in grades 9 and 10.

To read the full report, click here.

The report shows that students taking applied courses have a reduced chance of graduating from high school and that schools with a large proportion of students taking applied mathematics in grade 9 have lower average family incomes and lower levels of parental education.

Over the last decade, Ontario has had great success increasing high school graduation rates and sending more graduates on to university, college, or apprenticeships. But some students still do not share equally in that educational success, and many of them are taking applied courses in grades 9 and 10.

Demographics paint surprising picture

The organization analyzed demographic and grade 9 course choice data from all Ontario high schools, and found wide ranges among schools – some with more than half of students enrolled in grade 9 applied mathematics, and others where as few as 10% took applied math.

Comparing the “high applied” with the “low applied” schools, the researchers uncovered startling differences in terms of students’ average family incomes, Aboriginal identity, language needs and their parents’ education.

The report says the findings are particularly worrying because of long-standing research showing that intergenerational cycles of disadvantage can be reproduced by students’ course choices in high school. Equally worrying is the fact that students who choose applied courses in grades 9 and 10 are less likely to be successful on grade 9 EQAO tests, less likely to have all their required credits by the end of grade 10, and less likely to graduate from high school.

Streaming by another name…..

In Ontario, the formal grouping of students by presumed academic destination – streaming – was abolished in 1999 with the introduction of new Ontario Secondary School curriculum. Numerous academic studies have found that streaming students or grouping students by ability is likely to reproduce and even exacerbate patterns of disadvantage based on family backgrounds, including socio-economic status and race.

According to the report, the abolition of streaming in Ontario may have been more a matter of form than function.

Today, a large number of students in Ontario take applied courses for a majority of their compulsory credits in Grade 9.  Students can opt to mix and match applied and academic courses, but data from the Ontario Ministry of Education shows that the majority of students (62%) taking Grade 9 applied math are taking three or more applied courses. Only 10% of students take applied math and no other applied courses.

Should low income = high applied?

The report compares the 10% of schools with the highest concentration of students taking applied mathematics in Grade 9, to the 10% of schools with the lowest concentration of such students.

In the “high applied” schools, the students are:

  • 2½ times more likely to have parents who did not finish high school;
  • almost two-thirds less likely to have parents who attended university;
  • from families where the average family income is almost half that of the schools with the smallest proportion of student taking applied mathematics; and
  • more than three times (3.7 times) as likely to be Aboriginal.

Applied courses and the achievement gap

Some students take applied courses because they think they are easier. But data from the EQAO, the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Toronto District School Board show that, ironically, students taking applied courses are less likely to be successful.

  • Only 44% of students in applied math achieved the provincial standard in the grade 9 EQAO mathematics test, versus 84% of those in academic math.
  • 53% of students in applied English passed the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, while 93% of those enrolled in academic English passed.
  • 41% of students who started in grade 9 applied mathematics had not earned 16 credits by the end of grade 10; in comparison only 14% of students who started in academic math. Having all 16 credits by the end of grade 10 is a strong predictor for graduation.
  • A 2012 report from the TDSB showed that students enrolled in applied courses in Grade 9 were 29% less likely to graduate within four or five years and half as likely to pursue post-secondary education.
  • EQAO research shows that students who choose applied math are more likely to struggle no matter how they did on the Grade 3 and Grade 6 EQAO assessments. Of the students who met the provincial standard in both Grade 3 and Grade 6, 92% met it again in Grade 9 in the academic math course, compared with only 79% in the applied course.

To read the full report, click here.

To read the story in the Toronto Star, click here.

To read the editorial in the Toronto Star, click here.

People For Education Viewpoint:

Unless we assume that wealthier students are inherently more academically capable, the correlation between students’ family backgrounds and the chances they will attend a school with a high percentage of students taking applied courses is extremely disturbing.

This new research shows that it is time to look more closely at who is choosing applied courses, why they are being chosen and what advice parents and students are receiving in grade 8 when the choices must be made. Ultimately, we must question whether having two versions of any required course leads to some groups of students – particularly students who already experience disadvantage – being further disadvantaged.