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Analysis: Why universities need to look beyond grades when admitting international students

Last Updated on March 3, 2023 by YGK News Staff

By: David Baidoo-Anu, Queen’s University, Ontario; Christopher DeLuca, Queen’s University, Ontario, and Liying Cheng, Queen’s University, Ontario

International students play an instrumental role in the development of Canada’s current and future economy.

One recent indication of the importance of international students for Canada’s labour force and knowledge economy was an announcement by Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. Fraser announced lifting the cap on off-campus work hours for international students due to labour shortages.

Despite the significant contributions made by international students, the total number of international students enrolled in Canada’s post-secondary education institutions only represents less than about one-fifth of total post-secondary student enrolment. This situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But inequitable admission processes for international students have been found to limit admission of many prospective international students. In particular, grades have been found to provide an imperfect indicator of student achievement and potentially lead to unfair admission decisions for international students.

Evaluating academic performance

In Canada and globally, grades are commonly used to evaluate the academic performance of students. They are often a key factor in determining admission to universities and colleges.

Grading is a high-stakes practice. Grades have significant consequences for student educational opportunities, as well as for students’ self-perception, motivation for learning, social relationships and for parental expectations. These consequences include the possibility of immigrating and settling in a new country.

Students seen waiting to do an exam.
Grading systems affect students’ futures, but they vary from country to country. Students here line up for the first day of China’s national college entrance examinations in Beijing, in June 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

When students are transitioning to post-secondary study, grades are used to communicate with admission officers about student achievement.

It is no surprise that there are variations in school curricula, grading policies, grading practices, as well as social, cultural and educational values that affect grading in various countries internationally. Grades are not constructed equally in all contexts.

China and Canada study

Two of the authors of this story, Liying and Christopher, with colleagues, conducted a comparative analysis of grading policies within and across two learning contexts in Canada and China at the elementary and secondary school level.

The study found significant differences in grading policies that guide how teachers constructed grades. In Canada, when school teachers grade students, they seek to primarily capture achievement of curriculum content based on the grading policy. By contrast, in Chinese schools, teachers’ grades consider both achievement of content and the learners’ personal dispositions and acquired skills.

While this may seem like a slight difference, it means that grades in Canada and China reflect different attributes of students.

In examining the grading practices across the two countries in the provinces of Ontario and Guangdong, the study discovered that teachers in both countries primarily valued fairness as an overarching driver of decision-making when generating grades. They did this despite significant contextual differences across

  • classroom learning context and management;
  • learning values and priorities;
  • policy and external accountability or testing pressures;
  • consequences of how grades are used for post-secondary admission and study abroad.
Students seen sitting on benches outdoors, one working on a laptop.
Grades are used as a high-stakes decision-making tool for accepting students into Canadian universities and colleges. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Comparing grades from different countries is challenging

Little is known about how to comparatively evaluate students from across countries in relation to domestic students. Education scholar Wei Yan’s doctoral research showed how grades were interpreted and used by admission decision-makers.

Yan found that admission officers and educators involved in admission decisions across a number of Canadian universities held different values based on their personal experience and knowledge about grading practices and how grades were constructed across institutions and educational systems around the globe. These decision-makers subsequently used these values subjectively to interpret and assess grades in their admissions decisions.

Research on grading policies, practices and uses demonstrate that education stakeholders such as curriculum policymakers, teachers, as well as admission decision-makers work conscientiously to ensure that grades are a fair and accurate indicator of student achievement.

Nevertheless, with the increased globalization of education, we are facing unprecedented challenges regarding interpreting and using grades across global educational systems for admission purposes.

Need for valid and fair interpretation of grades

On one hand, grades are used as a high-stakes decision-making tool for accepting students into Canadian universities and colleges. On the other, grades are not consistently constructed or valued across educational systems internationally.

Understanding the complex, multidimensional and contextual differences in grades across cultures and countries is important. Only in doing so can we interpret student achievement based on grades in a fair and valid way.

Ensuring valid and fair grade interpretation is critical given the direct impact of grades on students who come to Canada to study and settle, and the impact on Canada itself — socially, educationally and economically.

Expanded admissions processes

Post-secondary institutions need to revisit admissions processes to consider multiple authentic indicators of student performance. These would be related to the skills, knowledge and attributes needed to be successful in higher education.

These processes would be less efficient and more costly than the processes currently in place, but would enable more valid and fair decisions about student admission to Canadian universities.

David Baidoo-Anu, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University, Ontario; Christopher DeLuca, Associate Dean, School of Graduate Studies & Professor, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University, Ontario, and Liying Cheng, Professor and Director of Assessment and Evaluation Group, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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