Mapping the Impacts of COVID Disruptions on Postsecondary Access in Ontario in COVID School Year 2 (2020-21)

Mapping the Impacts of COVID Disruptions on Postsecondary Access in Ontario in COVID School Year 2 (2020-21) was written by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Robert S. Brown with Christine Corso and George Tam in collaboration with the research department of the Toronto District School Board.

Graduation rates and PSE confirmations improved for many TDSB students during COVID-19, but others fell further behind

There has been much concern about students’ learning and their ability to progress in the face of the educational disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that, overall, the impacts of educational disruptions on PSE pathways have not been as dramatically negative as many feared.

Mapping the Impacts of COVID Disruptions on Postsecondary Access in Ontario in COVID School Year 2 (2020-21) builds on previous HEQCO reports which examined COVID’s impacts on high school graduation rates and postsecondary transitions for students who were in Grade 12 when pandemic-related education disruptions began. This report uses three years of data from the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB’s) Annual Student Mobility Data Set to track students’ postsecondary applications over a period of three years: the baseline year (2018-19), COVID School Year 1 (2019-20) and COVID School Year 2 (2020-21). The data set was linked to 11 others including the Student Census, comprehensive administrative data and records of student applications to college and/or university. The report uses key progress measures including Grade 12 grades, secondary school graduation and postsecondary access.

Analysis of this data revealed five salient findings:

  • Grade 12 students’ grades increased dramatically during the pandemic.
  • Students were more likely to graduate and confirm university attendance.
  • Students with “medium” prior achievements (i.e., passed all courses but received no As) saw the greatest increase in university confirmations.
  • Males, first-generation students, and many racial groups saw improved postsecondary access.
  • Students with Special Education Needs (SEN) experienced greater COVID-19 challenges.

Although the findings of this report are generally positive, there are still areas of concern. Students with SEN who make up a substantial — and growing — proportion of TDSB students experienced greater challenges and will likely require increased supports to reverse this trend.

This report leads to questions about whether improvements in traditional measures of academic progress translate to improvement in students’ underlying skills and knowledge. There is a valid concern that despite rising grades, students may have experienced learning challenges over the years of the pandemic. If postsecondary institutions cannot assess incoming student grades the way they have in the past, they may need to determine other ways to assess student preparedness and provide appropriate supports. Understanding the need for and effectiveness of educational supports will require better and faster system-level data about all stages of formal education, including postsecondary transitions.