Applied vs. Academic – what it all means

Angela Counter looks at the differences between these two streams
and the consequences for Ontario high school students.

The introduction of Applied and Academic-level high school courses, which were designed to end “streaming” and keep options open for all, has only resulted in further dividing students into separate tracks, says a recent report by People for Education, an Ontario group focused on publicizing education issues. The group has investigated the effects of academic and applied courses in Ontario for several years, and “each year our findings have indicated the system is not adequately equipped to provide support for course selections given the critical importance of these decisions.”

Currently, the province’s Grade 8 students move from a single track of core courses into Grade 9 Applied or Academic-level courses. The idea is to give students more options so they can tailor their learning to their own goals. However, People for Education argues that Ontario is asking students too young to choose a path that can affect their success after high school, leading to troubling outcomes. “Evidence indicates that Grade 8 is simply too early to require course decisions that could be potentially binding,” according to the report.

Applied vs. Academic

The Ontario curriculum outlines specific goals and topics for each course. For example, the description for Principles of Mathematics, Grade 9, Academic reads:

This course enables students to develop an understanding of mathematical concepts related to algebra, analytic geometry, and measurement and geometry through investigation, the effective use of technology, and abstract reasoning.

Meanwhile, the description for Foundations of Mathematics, Grade 9, Applied reads:

This course enables students to develop an understanding of mathematical concepts related to introductory algebra, proportional reasoning, and measurement and geometry through investigation, the effective use of technology, and hands-on activities.

The main difference is in the approach to learning. Academic courses are focused on abstract reasoning to teach subjects, and Applied courses focus on hands-on activities.

Similar differences can be found in the descriptions for Applied and Academic English courses, with an additional point: in English, Grade 9, Academic, students are told, The course […] leads to university or college preparation courses in Grades 11 and 12.

Applied English, by contrast, reads: The course […] leads to college or workplace preparation courses in Grades 11 and 12.

The Ministry of Education introduced Applied and Academic courses in 1999. The program is supposed to be inclusive and flexible, giving students options without locking them in. Students can transfer between Applied to Academic courses by attending a remedial course.

And choosing one Applied course does not restrict a student to choosing others; most schools encourage a mix of Applied and Academic courses.

Where the problem lies

The People for Education report concluded that students are grouping into separate tracks, regardless of the flexibility of the program. The report shows 62-per-cent of students who choose Applied Math are also choosing three or more other Applied courses. The report also highlights the disadvantages to a student’s success as a result of streaming. Education Quality and Accountability Office data confirms a 40-percent gap in test performance between students in Applied and Academic courses, and another study by the Toronto DSB indicated fewer students taking Grade 9 Applied Math were graduating high school on time than those who took Academic Math.

Worse, there is a link between students from lowincome families and the selection of Applied courses; in the highest-income neighbourhoods, only six-per-cent of students choose Applied courses, versus 33-per-cent of students from the lowest-income areas. This concentrates the disadvantage on these vulnerable students.

What can be done?

A key issue is students’ age at the time they begin selecting Applied vs. Academic courses, according to the People for Education report, which cites a study showing that ability-based streaming negatively impacts students when it begins at a younger age. Their report recommends pushing back the age so students don’t select different core courses until Grade 10, when they’ve had a year of high school to prepare them.

The report also states the ministry should work harder to educate parents on the differences between Academic and Applied courses, and to support students in maintaining variety in the type of courses selected.

Beginning in Grade 7, Ontario students track their academic progress in a web-based Individual Pathways Plan, intended to allow students to record and review their strengths with the support of teachers, counsellors, and their parents. This information helps students make decisions about course selection and career plans.

If Applied and Academic options are to be a part of the Ontario curriculum, according to the group, the Ministry must make it a priority to properly educate students and parents about these options and offer support students need to make adjustments as they grow.

“Although Ontario’s school system has made considerable strides in the equity of learning opportunities… there is extensive evidence to support delaying course decisions involving academic and applied courses to a later point in secondary school.”