Competency-based assessment runs into a roadblock when university admission is driven by traditional grades. This article describes a project at Kwantlen Polytechnic University experimenting with basing university admissions on student portfolios that demonstrate competencies.
If I had to summarize the problem with conventional grading systems (letter or percentage grades derived from classroom-based and standardized testing), it would be that educators tend to overstate their significance. When we say that “she got an A in English,” we usually mean to say “she is a good or excellent student” in that area. That is, of course, not something that letters are able to tell us.
In most grading systems I have encountered, grades in the A range represent unusually good achievement. In other words, if everyone gets an A, people start asking questions about how you mark. Letter grades rarely come, however, with data about the population to which that student has been compared (either explicitly or implicitly). We are making a relative claim without a frame of reference. Since high school English teachers are typically free to set their own assignments, it is also fair to say that this grade comes from an unknown number of unknown assessments. One of those assessments, depending on one’s province, might be a standardized exam, but that is not the only data point.
Grade 12 English, in any given provincial iteration, furthermore represents only one set of outcomes that one might associate with competency in spoken and written English, rhetoric, literature, and so forth. It obviously does not assess one’s ability to articulate an idea in any other language, nor does it typically include a robust non-European focus.
Even more confusingly, many teachers persist in assigning marks to non-curricular performances like attendance, participation and the like. A student who knows literally everything she needs to know about English literature might still, by dint of her poor attendance, score badly in her English course.
So, much like the warning labels on cigarette boxes or the side effects listed in advertisements for medication, conventional letter grades should come with a warning reminding us of their limitations.
This is why I, as a university teacher of primarily first-year students, am excited to see British Columbia’s next generation of Grade 12 graduates. A new, competency-based system will supplement existing letter and number grades, and will offer more ambitious opportunities to build portfolios, demonstrate competencies, and solve problems. Fortunately, Surrey Schools (one of our local districts) has already begun to incorporate many of these practices.
We wanted a viable blueprint for competency-based admission… to carry the K-12 changes into the post-secondary sector.
This is also why, a few years ago, it became clear to my research team (myself and a rotating cast of rising undergraduate stars) that we needed to do something. University admission policies – as any parent, student or high school teacher will tell you – drive a great deal of behaviour. Traditional admission policy incentivizes attention to conventional letter grading assessments, rather than the more authentic, but qualitative, demonstrations of achievement to which people naturally gravitate. So Surrey Schools could bravely press forward with the new curriculum, but if they were left to do so without their post-secondary partners, the results would be sadly predictable. As supportive of the new curriculum as I am, if my child came home and told me she was doing extensive extracurricular work on her portfolio, I would tell her to study for her exams first. She isn’t getting into university with her portfolio (outside of a few disciplines, such as design).
Why, though, isn’t she getting into university with her portfolio? Well, insofar as I could tell, no one had tried. After a few emails to my academic leaders, and a healthy dose of literature review, the Surrey Portfolio Pathway Partnership got started. We wanted a way to build an admission system that used authentic student assignments to carry the K-12 changes into the post-secondary sector. We wanted a viable blueprint for competency-based admission. We didn’t need a huge group of students; we just needed enough diversity of achievement to see what a portfolio might look like in a few different academic contexts. We began with the collection of about two dozen portfolios created in the existing curriculum’s career planning course. What we saw in that analysis was that, in order to be useful in university admission, student portfolios would need to be structured and supported to a much greater extent.
Knowing this, we formed a closer partnership with Surrey Schools and asked them for the names of 5-10 students who had interesting and creative ideas – irrespective of their formal grades. By special permission of our university’s senate, we were able to offer these students admission to the university on the basis of their competencies, rather than their grades (to this day, I have not seen their grades). What competencies? Well, that was up to them.
My research team split the group up so that each student would have an undergraduate mentor to help them build a competency-based portfolio over the course of their final months in high school. Pretend, we said, that we did not offer you admission. What would you show us to prove you are ready for university?
Over the next six months we guided the group through the collection and editing of the work they thought would show us their preparedness for university. The interests of the group were diverse – including nursing, criminology, poetry, and science teaching. The assignments they chose were similarly eclectic. We received hand-drawn geographical diagrams, speeches posted on YouTube, essays, standardized test results, worksheets and more.
We then mapped two layers of learning outcome information onto those assignments: the Grade 12 curricular competencies (learning outcomes), and the outcomes of a group of popular first-year undergraduate courses in our university. We listed every instance we could wherein a connection could be made between the assignment and these outcomes. The result was a web of about 1,400 connections. That is, there were 1,400 instances in which we saw an assignment and judged that it at least partially demonstrated a given outcome. This does not mean that every portfolio will be so richly interwoven, or even that we are correct in asserting the connections we did. What it does mean is that, for each of these students, the single letter grade we would usually see misses potentially hundreds of meaningful data points that their high school teachers had already seen.
One student – let’s call her Olivia – is looking to study in the liberal arts. She submitted English essay writing, creative writing, a written speech, a reflection on her work experience at a part-time job, a package of math assignments, and hand-drawn diagrams of environmental phenomena. When we compared this work to a sampling of our first-year undergraduate objectives, we found they partially demonstrated achievement in the expected areas of English, creative writing and math. We also found connections to the mental health topics in first-year health courses, the portfolio work in first year interdisciplinary courses, and other connections to global education, geography, education, and earth science.
Can it be scaled up?
I don’t know Olivia’s Grade 12 grades – but let us pretend for the purposes of argument that I do know those grades. Under conventional admissions policy, she would be admitted to my university on the basis of either her English grade, or an average of that grade and a few others. The institution gains or loses all those interesting ideas, and Olivia gains or loses all those life opportunities, while a package of broader and more meaningful assessment data sits literally down the street.
It is as if we had said, “I know you have achieved quite a bit in English, creative writing, mathematics, geography, interdisciplinary studies, global education, geography and earth science… but I only need to see your English 12 grade, please.”
The reason we do this has always been twofold, though. First, it has historically been difficult to collect assignments like these into a portfolio that can be sent with ease around the country. A single-page transcript, however, is easily sent anywhere. Second, whatever institution receives a portfolio needs to engage in a costly and time-consuming review of the material.
The first justification is simply no longer relevant. The age of the paper transcript was once characterized by very high costs for both computing and data transfer. Neither is the case today. Many individual high school students carry the computing and data transfer technology they need with them to school every day, and the industrial-scale servers used for cloud computing work far harder to provide us all with up-to-date photo and video libraries than they would to collect even a large proportion of a student’s high school work.
The second justification for conventional grading and admissions is far more pertinent. If we send portfolios from high schools to post-secondary institutions, we are seemingly saddling those institutions with an enormous new responsibility – reading and assessing all those portfolios. I was in a meeting a few years ago in which we discussed how much that would cost. It wasn’t comforting, and we couldn’t imagine a way to make it all work.
But this project has led me to conclude I had entered that meeting with a false premise. Post-secondary institutions will never know as much about student achievement as high school teachers do. Even with unrealistic budget increases, including seconding professors to admissions offices, secondary educators will still have a better longitudinal look at student achievement, and will have a wider and deeper range of performances to draw on. The question, then, isn’t how a university could read all those portfolios, but rather how we can build a better way to communicate what is in them.
Since secondary teachers are already evaluating student outcomes (in B.C., curricular competencies), it would be relatively unproblematic to shift the recording of that achievement to a new mode. Rather than taking assessments on a range of outcomes and then aggregating all that assessment into a single letter, why not leave the assessment at the level of assignments and outcomes? Why not say that Olivia has met the following Grade 12 competencies? She could then attach her portfolio work as evidence of those competencies should she wish to share it. Her future university could then examine which Grade 12 competencies its students should achieve in order to be strong candidates for undergraduate study and could receive those competency certifications (as assessed by her Grade 12 teachers), much like grades are received today.
Such a system of competency certification would enable students to use an incredibly wide range of possible assignments to prove their achievement. Anything, in principle, would be fair game if it could demonstrate to the teachers who know a student best that the competencies have been demonstrated. This would also sidestep the need to have post-secondary institutions review each and every portfolio. The portfolios could be linked to the competencies, but the competencies would be certified as a layer above the work itself. (See Figure 1.) Everyone would, in other words, get the more detailed analysis Olivia received.
While we are working on a series of more technical explanations and proposals, the arguments I have offered here hint at what I think the future of assessment looks like. I can say with more clarity that a person can do X and not Y than I can say that a person achieved A and not A-. It is more practically meaningful to say that a person can do X, than it is to say that a person is an A student. A system that allows students to carry their portfolios, but that does not result in the creation of massive administrative overhead, seems possible.
If we are going to close or open the door to future opportunity, we owe it to students like Olivia that we see the full range of her competencies as assessed by the teachers who work with her most closely. The Surrey Portfolio Pathway Partnership provides a small glimpse through a doorway to one possible future for assessment and admission. We intend to push it.
Original photos: iStock
First published in Education Canada, March 2019