KPU to Admit Six New Students Based on Portfolios, Not Grades

Pilot program aims to prove that letter grades aren’t the best way to measure student potential

KPU Educational Studies professor Dr. David Burns heads up KPU’s Kwanlten Educational Policy Incubator. (kpu.ca)

The days of provincial exams and GPAs may be coming to an end in B.C. thanks in part to a project by Kwantlen Polytechnic University Educational Studies professor David Burns and his team.

Burns, who is the primary investigator for the Kwantlen Educational Policy Incubator (KEPI), believes that a letter grade is not the best indicator of a student’s potential. Instead, he argues that it’s the competency of a student’s work that acts as the best way for universities to tell what that student is capable of.

In September, Burns and KEPI hope to prove this by admitting six students to KPU based on their portfolios alone, regardless of the letters on their high school transcripts.

“In the early years of K-12 education you have basically only competency-based assessment,” says Burns. “It’s only in the high school and university years that we have this momentary obsession with summarizing you in this very, very small number of letters, and it never comes up again in your life.”

Burns says that, in the context of the pilot program, ‘portfolio’ is the term used to describe a student’s collection of work which, through a competency-based assessment, shows what they know and are capable of.

KEPI is a research team consisting of Burns and a group of carefully selected KPU students. Over the past several months, the team has been collecting portfolios from Surrey high schools and removing their identifying information so that the evaluations remain anonymous. Burns calls the results “extraordinary”.

For instance, he read an impressive student proposal for offering humanitarian aid in Turkey to help cope with the Syrian refugee crisis. Burns says that this particular portfolio piece demonstrated the students’ potential for a number of KPU programs, including political science, geography, and sociology.

The next step for KEPI is to develop a policy system that would allow students to apply to university with their portfolios instead of just their grades. Burns hopes to come back—not just to KPU, but to post-secondary institutions across the province—with confirmation that this is a practical method of assessment.

Through a partnership with the Surrey School District called the Surrey Portfolio Pathways Partnership, KEPI has received permission from KPU to admit six students on the basis of their portfolios next September.

The students will likely be selected in January, and during the six months leading up to their first semester at KPU, they will work with KEPI to help develop policies regarding what should be looked for in student portfolios. They will also create exemplar portfolios to be used as models by future students and admissions departments.

This project is an effort to shift university admissions away from the traditional assessment that is already taking place in K-12 schools. The transition from focusing on “content to competency” means that students will be judged less on their ability to memorize and recite information.

“The question now becomes, ‘What happens when you finish grade 12?’” asks Burns. “Because that whole [competency] system is … a good way to conduct education, but the universities, at the end of the day, need a pretty small range of data to determine if you can go to university, and if so, to what program.”

He says that research shows that GPAs are not strong indicators of what people have actually achieved in their lives.

“It’s kind of the dirty secret of public education that most of the grades that you’re assessed going through K-12 don’t say a great deal about your future success, and we pretend like they do,” says Burns. “The thing that I’m really passionate about is the way that we use those grades to either open or close doors for people.”

If we see a phase-out of traditional acceptance criteria at universities, Burns believes that most universities will have trouble adjusting. He’s hoping to help bring KPU ahead of the curve.

“I think, as [KPU] itself matures—and we’re still young in the sense that we’re developing a lot of our values and a lot of our direction as we go—I see us moving further and further towards what people need rather than setting bars to make sure people come in with certain things,” he says.

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