The Quest for Admissions Fairness

Earlier this week we posted about a new Senate admissons policy, J-50. While it represents a small step in the quest for fairness in the admissions process, there is still a great deal more going on behind the scenes that is also more controversial.

Indeed, while J-50 received widespread support from Senate, there were some concerns with it. As an example, even if the curriculum of another Canadian province results in those students being over- or under-represented at UBC, Senate may not be able to actually address it. Sonia Purewal, who sat on the working group said “Until data is available on all provinces, there is still going to be differential treatment for a subset of students as some students will not get any grade adjustment whereas others will… Despite this, we can’t ignore information that warrants attention. We have to begin the process to create a fair admissions practice.”

Senator and debater extraordinaire Joshua Sealy-Harrington also raised the point that if there was an international jurisdiction where grades had to be adjusted downwards, it may work against the university’s diversity goals.

Downward adjustments in general are something that makes everyone nervous. The rational argument goes that to achieve fairness you have to be willing to do both upward and downward adjustments. The obvious problem that gets in the way is that the optics of lowering students’ grades is horrible. Regardless of how justified it may be, the politics will always get in the way.

To see an example of this, you don’t need to look far. The Senate working group that was working on J-50 was also examining a much hotter issue: adjusting grades of incoming BC students based on which high school they come from.

When the provincial government made standardized test in BC optional, it caused headaches for admissions personnel, as the putative “normalizing effect” of standardized testing on grades would be eliminated. Whether that occurs or not is still to be seen (the first cohort of students with optional provincial testing are the current first years), but the working group still decided to gather some benchmark data.

What they found was “even in the presence of provincial examinations, there is a significant and persistent difference between some schools with respect to the degree to which grades presented for admission predict performance at UBC.

The report continued, revealing “large differences across a significant proportion of secondary schools relative to overall norms, with quite a few schools differing from each other by 10 percentage points or more. For example, a student from School A might be predicted to obtain a first‐year sessional average 10 percentage points higher than a student from School B with the same admission average and entering the same UBC program.

At the December Senate meeting, Senate Admissions Committee chair Dr. David Fielding summarized the options available for the data and the committee’s thoughts on each:

  1. Do Nothing – Indefensible given the work that went into it and the results that arose.

  2. Use it to correct all the grades of incoming BC students – A huge amount of work
  3. Share information with any faculty undertaking Broad-Based Admissions – Simple, and targets the students most affected by this, those near the cutoff.

These are the public reasons. There’s more to it, of course. A lot more.

One big question was around whether to release the data publicly. Wary of how the public would receive it, this was decided against. This is reasonable, given that the public and/or media interpretation would be as a de facto ranking of BC high schools. As a student choosing a high school, it could serve as a big incentive to choose one over another. Simply by attending a certain one gives you a leg up in admissions.

Despite the working group consulting with pretty much everyone under the sun that might have an interest, Provost David Farrar has asked for more consultations with other universities on this proposal. Interestingly, none of the institutions notable enough to be listed for consultation are in BC; none of them is currently dealing with the elimination of standardized testing. J-50 was never subject to this type of consultation with other universities even though what it addressed was far more universal.

Reading between the lines, the extra consultation is a way to quietly shut down this proposal due to its political nature. The working group seems to have made a lot of progress, and it appears that doing grade adjustments for all BC students (Option #2 above) would certainly be feasible if the political will were present. Whether it is appropriate to do so is probably best left up to individual opinion.

Having been de-fanged, the committee got behind option #3, sharing information with the Broad-Based Admissions (BBA) process. Even this is not a slam dunk. Lowering grades, even in internal situations, is still too touchy. Instead of sharing the whole data, what is being done is generating a list of “plus” schools. A “plus” school is one where students would receive a large upward adjustment to their high school marks, and the students are therefore underrepresented at UBC. BBA committees will be able to see the list of “plus” schools but will not receive any information about any of the other high schools.

If you have not yet read the Macleans article detailing pay-for-credit high schools in BC, please take some time to do so. This was referenced a few times during December’s Senate meeting, especially given that the whistle blower was at University Hill HS, (almost literally) in UBC’s backyard.

While the Macleans article is obviously meant to cause controversy, I don’t think there is anyone who would deny the existence of pay-for-credit scheme, nor say that UBC should not be concerned about it. The practice of listing “plus” schools sidesteps this issue, as well identifying schools that may be more reputable but happen to have inflated grading standards. The university could benefit to be a little bolder. Fairness isn’t always nice. If UBC truly wishes to work towards fairness and seek out the best and brightest, it necessarily means denying admissions to those to whom that doesn’t apply.


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  1. Or, one dumps the idea that high school graduation grades have anything meaningful to say about success at university or that they actually indicate best and brightest (they just indicate richest and and most privileged).

    Posted by Charles Menzies | January 7, 2010, 3:25 pm
  2. Re: above

    Problem solved! Admission for everyone!

    High school grade comparisons within a school still have a high correlation with success at university.

    Posted by Ricardo | January 8, 2010, 3:06 am
  3. Not certain I understand the last line -”high school grade comparisons within a school” . . . Does this mean that those who do better in high school will always do better in post-secondary on a relative scale?

    Some reserach has shown that grade 9/10 grades actually predict better the outcomes for an individual in post-secondary.

    All this aside, the single best indicator of educational success is socio-economic status and mother’s level of education . . .

    So, using grades and school outputs to set admissions reinforces social class and status differences already in play. It becomes a classic reward the privileged for what they already have.

    Shouldn’t access to a quality education be a right to all citizens? not a privilege dolled out to those how have control over it in the first place?

    Posted by Charles Menzies | January 8, 2010, 7:32 am
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