While working through our application and admission data, we see quite a few applicants who have done a required course at summer school, especially among Ontario residents. (It doesn’t seem to be so common in other provinces. I wonder why?) We know that the theory/rumour is that you can get higher grades at summer school and thereby boost your admission average and chances of acceptance into the more competitive programs. We also hear concerns from other applicants and parents that this is an unfair advantage, because some are unable to attend summer school for various reasons. Currently we don’t penalize applicants taking summer school courses (unless it is to repeat a required course), but maybe we should? Since we like evidence-based decision-making, let’s use some data to see if summer school does give a significant advantage.
I’m going to use the Ontario grade data for applicants from a previous year, for the course ENG4U (Ontario grade 12 English), since that seems to be the most common summer school course choice. We divide the data into two groups, 1) those that took the course during a Fall or Winter semester (or both, for non-semestered schools); and 2) those that took it during a summer session.
For group 1 (regular school) we have: 1,999 grades, with mode 80%, mean 79.1%, and standard deviation 10.5.
For group 2 (summer school) we have: 654 grades, with mode 80%, mean 81.7%, and standard deviation 8.3.
Almost 25% or our applicants in Ontario that year did ENG4U in summer school! Looking at the statistics, the most frequent grade (mode) is the same for both groups (80%), and the summer school mean (average) grade is slightly (2.6%) higher. Of course, we need to run Student’s t-test to determine if this 2.6% difference is statistically significant, and it turns out that it is (at the 95% confidence level).
It seems that the theory is correct, you can get a higher mark in summer school, if only slightly higher. But that’s not the complete picture. We also should look at the distribution of grades to see what’s happening. So, below is a graph of the cumulative probability of grades for the two groups.
The grade distributions look fairly similar, especially at the upper end, but there might be some difference at the low end. I ran a two sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov significance test on the two distributions to quantify whether they are really different and it turns out that they are statistically different.
So, have we proven that taking English in summer school will give you a higher grade? No! We have to remember that correlation does not prove causation. How do we know that the summer school students aren’t self-selecting in some way, so that the two groups are not really comparable? The only way to determine this would be to take 1,000 students and randomly force one group to do summer school, while the other group is forced to do regular school English. This is not likely to happen.
Conclusions and Comments
So, it does appear that taking a summer school ENG4U course is correlated with a slight benefit for whatever reason, of 2.6% on average. This would boost a six course admission average by 0.43%, which is probably not going to make much difference for anyone except very borderline decisions.
However, there is a significant hidden downside to the summer school strategy. While spending time in class, applicants may not be getting as much of that work and/or volunteer experience that we like to see, resulting in a lower Admission Information Form (AIF) score. So, in fact, the summer school strategy may be counter-productive and actually reduce your chances. And as you can see in the graph above, it is possible to get relatively low grades in summer school too.
When asked, I rarely advocate doing summer school unless it’s necessary for some specific reasons. I would rather see our applicants get some “real world” work, volunteer, or other experiences that will look good on their AIF and their resume when applying for that first co-op employment experience in our engineering programs. Employers are not impressed by summer school.
So, back to the original question. Should we penalize applicants who take summer school courses? No, this (and other data we have reviewed) doesn’t seem to suggest there is a strong reason to implement any penalties. Any advantage is pretty minor, especially considering all the other variables that could be involved.