Public secondary schools are struggling with a dirty secret. According to David Burns, a professor of education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, it’s that grades mean a lot less than they used to.
Dr. Burns is primary investigator at the Kwantlen Educational Policy Incubator (KEPI) at KPU. He’s working with the Surrey School District of British Columbia to develop a university admissions policy that will do away with traditional grades in favour of student portfolios that emphasize “university readiness.”
“We need to understand that grades have always been an easy out in our admission systems, that we owe our students more than that,” Dr. Burns says.
As part of the Surrey Portfolio Pathway Project, KEPI and the school district compiled about two dozen examples of student portfolios. Dr. Burns calls these portfolios “competency maps” – a compilation of a student’s work that reflects Grade 12 learning outcomes set in the provincial curriculum. The portfolio compiled for “Participant 13,” last year, for example, included an essay and a poem. Although the essay had grammatical errors, the poem showed vivid imagery with powerful expression, Dr. Burns says. This raw ability to create should be recognized as important in a literary university course, Dr. Burns argues, adding that grammar can be taught.
The researchers are now putting their models to work by recruiting six Grade 12 students they’ll mentor through the process of building their own portfolios. These students will submit their final portfolios for acceptance to KPU, an open-admission institution.
The government of British Columbia is in the process of revamping its educational curriculum away from grades, focusing instead on core competencies including communication, thinking, as well as personal and social competency. Dr. Burns says portfolios should demonstrate an applicant’s abilities in these core competencies while also meeting comparable requirements for first-year courses at KPU.
Anya Goldin, a third-year philosophy major at KPU and a senior research assistant at KEPI, says portfolios would allow applicants to show admissions offices what they believe they excel in as students. “I see portfolios as a way for students to tell us what they feel is important about themselves and their education,” she says. “When we allow students to apply to KPU with portfolios, we are telling them that we value their voice, and that we trust them to tell us their story.”