A single letter grade doesn’t tell the whole story.
But a robust portfolio compiled over months or even years that captures a student’s competencies in modern and creative ways — well, that’s a different story.
“Students all over Surrey are doing amazing, new and creative things to demonstrate learning in ways that letter and number grades simply cannot express,” said Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) instructor Dr. David P. Burns, who specializes in educational policy.
Burns is the primary investigator with the Kwantlen Educational Policy Incubator (KEPI), which has partnered with the Surrey School District to develop a framework for accepting high school portfolios for post-secondary admission. The portfolios would be used to either replace or augment traditional grade-based applications for admission.
“If students create these amazing new portfolios and we don’t bother to make them a meaningful part of the university transition process, we are, in effect, saying they don’t have much value,” said Burns. “Instead, the ultimate goal should be to make the portfolios an integral part of the application process into university education.”
Under the umbrella of the “Surrey Portfolio Pathway Partnership,” KPU and the Surrey School District have spent the past many months examining portfolios from a small sample of high school students to determine whether the university’s admissions system could accommodate portfolio-based admissions. The answer? A definite yes.
“They’re developing portfolios that clearly demonstrate their readiness for university study,” enthuses Burns, his excitement evident. “And more to the point, this is a meritorious, pedagogically sound way to proceed.”
Ready to pilot their findings, the university and the district will now work with six high school students to develop exemplary portfolios that will be used for actual admission to KPU in September 2018. Five students will be admitted to the Faculty of Arts and one student to the Faculty of Science and Horticulture as first-year undergraduates.
Ultimately, the university and the Surrey School District are excited about the potential to establish a permanent pathway for students from Surrey Schools to gain admission to KPU with only their portfolios.
“This is an evidence-based and a research-based initiative,” emphasizes Surrey School District Supt. and CEO Dr. Jordan Tinney, who has been outspoken on the advantages of descriptive assessments over letter grades and percentages.
Tinney points out that the education system is in a league of its own in using letter grades as a measure of human performance — imagine if human resources departments assigned letter grades to employee performance, he quips — yet one or two percentage points can influence a grade and mean the difference between entrance to a post-secondary institution or not.
“Imagine breaking a person’s complex understanding of things like civilization, culture, art, dance, philosophy, English, down to a number — to one decimal place in fact,” says Tinney, who expressed his argument in a recent blog post.
The Surrey School District is a leader in its approach to student assessment using digital portfolios. The district won the $50,000 SFU Cmolik Prize for Enhancement of Public Education in 2015 for its use of digital portfolios to assess and advance student learning through photos, videos, notes and other documentation.
Tinney co-authored the award-winning entry with district principal Antonio Vendramin and others. Vendramin is also collaborating on the Surrey Portfolio Pathways Partnership and is a passionate advocate of using portfolios to demonstrate learning and experience.
“Unlike a final letter grade or percentage point, a portfolio can document growth and improvement over time, which are testaments to learning potential,” notes Vendramin. “Do we really want to say ‘no’ to a high school applicant who has an eagerness to learn and a demonstrated ability to overcome challenges? Aren’t those real-world skills?”
The philosophical underpinnings of the Surrey Portfolio Pathways Partnership align with the direction of the Ministry of Education’s new Grade 11-12 curriculum, which is also moving away from conventional grading toward broader measures of student achievement. The new curriculum will be implemented in September 2019.
Dr. Salvador Ferreras, KPU’s provost and VP academic, lauds the Surrey Portfolio Pathways Project and sees it as a natural extension of KPU’s polytechnic mandate and its vision as a proudly open-access, transformative and modern post-secondary institution. In addition to being used for admission, portfolios can help inform how students can best be supported during their educational journey at KPU.
“Portfolios and competencies allow us to know and predict more about students, which will also allow us to better support them as they transfer into and through university,” says Ferreras. “So why wouldn’t we want to know more?”
Attached: Photo of David P. Burns
Story by Corry Anderson-Fennell