Canadian universities test accepting great students with not-so-great grades

Aiming to reach high school students with great skills but low marks, a pilot project allows applicants to show off their best work
Jennifer Lewington

Grade 12 student Theresa Henderson is a peppy and talented 18-year-old who excels in drama class and pursues leadership activities outside of high school, making her an appealing candidate for admission to university.

One thing stands in her way: a grade average that she describes as “not a very good one.”

But this fall, the Surrey, B.C., high school student will enter first year at her local post-secondary institution, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, thanks to a pilot project that looks beyond her marks to a digital portfolio of work showing off her skills, aptitude and readiness for higher education.

“Handing out life opportunities based on that particular instrument [a letter grade] alone is not a good way to run a public education system,” argues David Burns, a Kwantlen education studies professor and leader of his institution’s pilot project with the Surrey District School Board. “Research on the labour market is continually saying that we need to have a more specific discussion about an individual’s abilities and skills,” he adds, citing employer complaints of a skills shortage or, at least, a mismatch between graduates’ skills and the market’s needs.

Kwantlen, a regional undergraduate institution in Metro Vancouver with 12,000 full-time students, is leading efforts to assess the merits of using portfolios as a complement to letter grades (or possibly a substitute). For their pilot, Kwantlen researchers and district officials are working with 10 Surrey students in their final year of high school as they assemble samples of work—creative writing, videos, 3-D science experiments and other activities—into a digital portfolio that demonstrates abilities relevant for admission to university. At least six students are expected to enter Kwantlen this fall through the pilot.

The university—which serves a fast-growing population, including recent immigrants—teamed up with the nearby Surrey District School Board last November. For her admission portfolio, Henderson, who is Metis, includes a music video in which she stars and for which she co-wrote a song with fellow students celebrating their Indigenous roots. She also wrote about her experiences as a high-ranking member of the local Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Cadets, identifying skills she has honed in leadership, collaboration and lesson planning over the past six years.

By conventional standards, she would not make Kwantlen’s minimum admission cut-off of C-plus. Earlier in high school, she says she lost ground due to bullying-related absenteeism. Now she plays catch-up to increase her borderline marks in Grade 12 English, a prerequisite for university admission. She says her current low grade, in a subject she likes, doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It is so important to get to know someone and not just look at their report card and grades and assume they didn’t try,” she says. “It is so nice to get into this [Kwantlen] program to let people know I am not about my grades.”

Currently, a lively debate rages over whether portfolios could—or should—replace letter grades for admission to university. The results of the Surrey Portfolio Pathway Partnership, as the collaboration with Kwantlen is known, will add to a wider discussion when researchers issue a report this summer. “You get a lot of hype about MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] and augmented reality,” says education consultant and author Tony Bates. “One of the biggest changes to our education system is going to be the impact of e-portfolios on student assessment. It’s going to be much more revolutionary than some of the other things.”

At best, any change in practice is well down the road, not least because an assessment of portfolios would be time-consuming for large institutions. But education researchers say the Kwantlen pilot could offer valuable insights on portfolio-based admissions. “It’s innovative for Canada,” says Leesa Wheelahan, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “It is trying to help students by recognizing the breadth and depth of their experience and readiness to study at university,” she adds. “It is not just relying on a number or set of grades, and that is important.”

But why the growing interest in e-portfolios for admissions? For starters, some post-secondary institutions see opportunities to expand their pool of applicants by taking a closer look at those with skills and experiences, not just the right grades, to succeed in higher education. “The existing system does not do very much to help us understand educational achievement,” says Kwantlen’s Burns. “It takes people who are good at fitting into the system and brings them in for more time in the system. The output is many intelligent people with great skills but that is not the bar we need . . . The key is to develop a citizenry that can participate meaningfully in national life and economic life.”

Another impetus comes from British Columbia’s current reform of its elementary and secondary school curriculum that expects students to show they understand and can apply what they have learned in school.

By 2019, the province’s Grade 12 graduation diploma will require students to submit a “capstone project” that takes a topic of interest and uses it to showcase their aptitude, for example, in communication and critical thinking. For their part, Surrey and other school districts have introduced digital portfolios in elementary school, with student projects assessed by teachers and available for viewing by parents through the school year, not just at report card time. Gradually, e-portfolios are expected to be adopted in high schools.

Provincial education officials are watching the Kwantlen project with interest. “The hope is we are going to see some of the kids we are missing, or if we see a larger picture of them, we can help them get on a journey they might not have,” says Jan Unwin, superintendent of graduation and student transitions for the ministries of education and advanced education, praising Kwantlen and Surrey for pursuing the pilot. Though Unwin sees portfolios as a potential “value-added” component, not a replacement for grades, she says: “The more we know about students, the better life chances they have.”

About half of Surrey elementary schools use digital portfolios, according to school board district principal Antonio Vendramin, with some schools already opting for portfolio-based assessments instead of letter grades to measure a student’s grasp of learning goals.

“It’s not just how much you know and how well you reproduce the content knowledge, but what do you do to demonstrate that you can [apply the knowledge],” he says. “Letter grades no longer capture that in a meaningful way.”

For their part, Kwantlen officials recognize they need to prepare for the curriculum’s growing emphasis on competencies.

“By 2023, students will be immersed in being agents of their own learning; they are taking responsibility for self-reflection and interacting with others,” says Salvador Ferreras, provost and academic vice-president at Kwantlen. When these students arrive at university, he says, “they definitely will not be used to a teacher lecturer at the front of the class. They will be immersed in technology and, most importantly, they will be used to a different kind of assessment.”

Given Kwantlen’s mission to serve its local community, portfolio-based admissions could provide an extra tool to identify talented candidates.

“Most educators will probably tell you that students who maybe didn’t do well academically and who are not going to achieve a 3.5 or 4 grade-point average can, in other ways, demonstrate competency-based tasks,” says Ferreras. “How do we create a different pathway so that the [admission] experience is inclusive of everyone?”

His perspective resonates with Grade 12 student Zeeshan Chandal, 17, another participant in the pilot project. He is doing well academically and expects to enter Kwantlen this fall, but doubts he has the marks for an elite university. His enthusiasm for the pilot is fed, in part, by the high school experience of his older brother, now 24. Chandal says his brother is “a really smart guy and an out-of-the-box thinker” whose skills and expertise were not reflected in his high school letter grades, which slowed his eventual entry to higher education.

As for Henderson, she has set her sights on higher education, a destination that could have been out of reach based on her marks alone. After an undergraduate degree from Kwantlen, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in speech pathology at the University of British Columbia. “Looking at grades is different than looking at the portfolio,” she says. “I have so many more things under my belt than standard school grades.”