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Are high school marks enough?

Competition for the best students and grade inflation prompt changes in the way some universities assess student applicants.


Faced with escalating recruitment pressures and concerns about grade inflation, at least two universities – the University of Saskatchewan and University of British Columbia – are adjusting admission requirements for entering high school students.

UBC is moving this year to a “broad-based” admissions process that focuses on more than high school marks, with applicants required to submit a personal profile as well. The personal profile consists of short answers to five questions that are meant to convey a sense of an applicant’s personal characteristics and non-academic strengths. “It’s a big change,” said James Ridge, UBC associate vice-president and registrar. “And it’s certainly not without risk, but we really feel quite strongly it’s the right thing to do.”

UBC tends to recruit from a narrow band of high-achieving students, and for this group, marks alone may not show whether a prospective student will be a good fit, says Mr. Ridge. “We really do want to know whether they are going to engage with others, the extent to which they have historically engaged with the community, their leadership ability and their ability to deal with and overcome obstacles,” he said.

A pool of trained evaluators will review all personal profiles, stripped of names and other identifying information. Each will be scored by two evaluators and then read by a third if the first two assessments diverge by more than a set amount. The score will be combined with the student’s marks before an admission decision is made.

UBC worked closely with Oregon State University, which has done extensive research showing that the questions have a strong predictive value, said Mr. Ridge. UBC’s Sauder School of Business has also used broad-based admissions for the past six years. While UBC remains interested in academic performance, Mr. Ridge said he hopes the new system will open up opportunities for students who are less strong academically “but have personal characteristics and experience that is really interesting … and would add something to the class.”

The change is partly fuelled by concerns about grade inflation. Since 2004, when the province made provincial exams optional (other than for Grade 12 English), grade point averages of B.C. high school graduates increased by about two percentage points. Mr. Ridge said that high school marks, while good predictors of success, are less reliable than they were five or 10 years ago.

For similar reasons, the University of Saskatchewan recently adopted a new admissions policy specifically for students from Alberta, one of the few provinces with mandatory provincial exams. In Alberta, exam scores count for half of the final Grade 12 mark, putting Alberta students on an unequal footing with students from other provinces. Starting next fall, U of S will admit Alberta students based on high school marks alone, or diploma exam marks, or a combination of the two – whichever is highest. The policy applies to students from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories who follow the Alberta high school curriculum.

David Hannah, associate vice-president, student affairs, at U of S, said there were concerns that Alberta students were disadvantaged because their diploma exams tend to bring down Grade 12 averages. Meanwhile, Alberta’s education minister recently told reporters that changes may be coming to put the province’s students on an equal footing.

Dr. Hannah said that the university’s own data showed that Alberta students fare better in first year than those from other provinces. “Based on that information, we felt it would be fairer to treat these students the same way we treat students from every other province,” Dr. Hannah said.

The change might help recruitment too, he noted; applications from Alberta students are 27 percent higher this year, compared with the same time a year ago. “We wanted to give those students a fair shake. And if that does draw some students to the University of Saskatchewan who wouldn’t be eligible for admission or scholarships to other institutions, we’d be happy with that,” he said.

Assessing applicants across provinces is an ongoing conundrum for universities. But Don Klinger, associate professor of education at Queen’s University, said the bigger challenge is assessing applicants from within a province, since standards and marks can vary among high schools. Yet only a small proportion of students – mainly high achievers – go to university outside their home province, and there are only small differences between provincial curriculums. Universities likely have unofficial procedures to deal with grading discrepancies both within and between provinces, said Dr. Klinger, but they rarely publicize them.

UBC, for one, said it adjusts scores for Alberta students. Wilfrid Laurier University, for another, said it considers admitting out-of-province students who are within three percentage points of a program’s cut-off mark, to recognize the variation between high school marking systems in different provinces, said a spokesman. Laurier also considers admitting Ontario students who are within three percentage points of the cut-off if they’ve completed an applicant background summary.

Some universities have tried to introduce admissions tests to curb grade inflation but these experiments have been short lived. The tests are costly to administer, said Dr. Klinger, and aren’t much better at predicting student success than high school marks.

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  1. S.C. / January 18, 2012 at 13:29

    The best way to level the playing field would be to institute a nation-wide system of standradized testing. Offer a Canadian version of SAT/GRE, available in both official languages and make it the yardstick for university admissions. It will be a computerized multiple choice where doubts about gender bias and favouritism can be avoided.

    Everyone should have to write 3 papers- language (English or Francais), mathematics and mental aptitude, in order to qualify for university admissions.

    Such a system and will bring on some positive changes!

  2. CAB / January 18, 2012 at 15:18

    How long do these universities think it will be before the students “answering” their 5 questions will have rehearsed the correct responses to put them at the top of the queue?

    I agree that a standardized testing for entrance to all Canadian universities is the answer. We know how expensive that is but if they are serious they will do it. Otherwise we will remain close to the bottom of the pile as far as university success is concerned.

  3. Stephen Price / January 18, 2012 at 15:24

    A key thing to remember is the instinct to maximize one’s benefit within a given social system (aka: game the system). This isn’t inherently bad or wrong on the part of students (I would say we all do it at some level: put your hand up if you have ever had a tax accountant or if you’ve ever tried to get somewhere faster than traffic flow would allow). The need is to balance admissions transparency with adequate opacity to foil the gaming tendencies of applicants.

    What I see on the ground here in BC is that many students are gaming the system to add GPA points. Chinese speakers take Chinese 12 courses for the easy A. French Immersion students take the regular French 12 course for the same reason. And of course, there is the grade negotiation that inevitably takes place (and did in the 90’s when I was at school).

    Another common one I see is students who don’t acheive to the level that they need for admisison on the first attempt at a course retake that course with another provider and improve their grade. This is particularly challenging with Distance Education providers: in the absence of in-person testing with rigorous identity checking, it is tough to know with any certainty if the student is submitting their own work. It seems most easily evident with English grades: there are a surprising number of students who write to admissions offices with questions in largely incoherent English who have excellent English grades.

    Further, due to lack of transcript standards, we don’t know when BC students have retaken courses: the Province doesn’t send us that data. The province also doesn’t indicate, course by course, which school the course was taken at, making it difficult to parse data about possible problem educational providers.

    Broader-based admissions are good in that they add a layer of opacity (in addition to looking for desirable student behaviours not represented on their transcript). They add a unique written exercise. SAT-type testing is also a good idea (although not perfect).

    The article is correct, though: as all forms of grade gaming increase, the reliability of the gamed indicators declines and the universities will shift their admissions strategies to seek other indicators that are less prone to the noise created in the data by gaming behaviour.

    Ironically, individual gaming behaviour in this context results in failed goals in the long term: a student who inflates their academic preparation in a significant way is more likely to find they don’t meet their professors’ expectations and fail out. A student who was dishonest in achieving admissions will likely be unable to work at a university level themselves and face either failure or continued dishonesty: both options are difficult and risky to be successful at. So, I’d say it’s a losing strategy from an individual perspective when compared to actually achieving the academic preparation you need.

    From a systems perspective, it’s also a losing strategy. This gaming results in a more bureaucratic, more expensive, more labour intensive admission system. The key, therefore, is how do public policy makers find systemic ways of reducing gaming in the cheaper student performance indicators (grades).

  4. Ken Mitton / January 18, 2012 at 20:56

    At our Universities here in the US, the SAT and GRE scores are ok to weed out students who are not great for college, simply because they may not be self motivated enough to study for those tests. As a Canadian educated scientist, and now raising kids in a US educational system, it is clear that typical Canadian high school graduate is somewhat better prepared to a level where they could easily beat the average SAT, ACT or GRE score without studying. My spouse aced the GRE straight out of high school. Those tests will waste time and $$ in Canada. We get students that have CLEP’d out of first year courses (like chemistry, advanced placement) using study guides, and they struggle because they never really had time to become proficient in applying the material. I agree with the previous note about writing a paper. Make them write it about themselves at a sit down test, time limited, no way to fake it or buy it online. Along with their extracurricular activities and efforts, that will tell you much more about their ability to survive college days.

  5. JP / January 27, 2012 at 06:32

    If you want to test the motivation to learn of entering Anglo students, test their French. It may not be predictive of other course performance, but it would be a good indicator of how much energy those students are/have been ready to invest in studying.

    Testing the English of Francos may also be a criterion, although probably a weaker one, since many of them have had to learn English out of necessity, not motivation to learn.

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