Marks: The Holy Grail


The topic of this article has become an issue at my school and, I believe, is fairly widespread. In talking with various admissions officers, I understand that it seems to be a growing problem for universities as well. It was inspired by the article in the Spring 2023 edition of Canadian Teacher Magazine, “Is This for Marks…” by Otte Rosenkratz.

In my own school, I am frequently approached by students individually and by several students with a mob-like mentality who are overly zealous about appealing their marks. Often, their requests are petty and based on the assumption that they can self-evaluate their work much better and more accurately than the instructor who taught the course—all part of the teacher is wrong and I, the student, am correct syndrome.

The end game invariably is that I, as principal, become the arbitrator of marks disputes. Often, discussions are heated and protracted with a sense of courtroom drama or the Wild West. Marks are a type of addiction, and my own students fixate on them as if they are the only things that really matter about education. School climate, extra-curricular events, and even the love of learning are all thrown aside for the scramble for that one more additional mark that will set them apart from the crowd.

I realize the importance of marks to any student. I, too, had such a fixation as a student, and obviously, marks are important because they directly relate to university acceptance and attending their university of first choice—the end game in the eyes of many students. Marks are an obsession, and often, the quest for better marks eclipses the actual learning experience. However, so much is lost as the mark—the Holy Grail—supersedes the importance of the high school experience and the learning process.

Recently, I called around to several admissions departments associated with universities in Southern Ontario to discover more details about their admission policies and procedures. My hope was that this would give me better insight into assisting my own students at a small private school in Toronto. I made many interesting discoveries, including the fact that although many universities have basic similarities in their policies in regard to admission, each has its own unique set of expectations, standards, requirements, timelines, and general best practices to suit their own needs while accommodating students as well.

Presently, at my own school, and I know this to be a concern at public and separate boards as well as many other private schools, is the issue related to mark relevance and credibility. There are some university departments that systematically track marks from admitting high schools over time and, as a result, implement a correction factor to the marks, making them more relevant and realistic to the realities of the university courses to which they are applied.

The practice of mark correction or adjustment becomes a necessity in order to accept students to various programs and give them an increased capacity, once accepted, to succeed academically. This procedure is not always practised by the university as a whole but may be used by individual departments who also have a great deal of sovereignty over their own admissions.

Most recently, and this will likely be duplicated by more institutions, is the implementation of timed essay writing for admission purposes on a dedicated web portal and/or a video interview also over a secured portal.

To date, this is more common for business and engineering faculties as the need arises to secure accurate student markers of competency, skills, and knowledge, as well as specific communication and linguistic abilities.

A long-standing issue with many students, made more paramount with AI developments and technologies, is the ubiquitous cheating and plagiarism associated with school testing and admissions procedures. Teachers must be ever more vigilant of sources, writing style, standards of expression, and originality of any written submission they receive. Although several admissions officers did tell me that they relied heavily on honest self-reporting by students concerning their admissions materials, with the exception of transcripts, of course. However, I also detected some hesitation on the part of the admission personnel I spoke with, indicating, I thought, self-reported information is likely not totally honest or accurate at times.

In the future, a likely outcome for university acceptance, in addition to the present reliance on grades and other standardized test results, will be the use of more competency-based assessments. Marks can be unreliable even when based on structured rubrics or student observation and conversation. Therefore, demonstrating an accomplished skill set rather than the mere presentation of a mark representing the same skill is probably a much stronger tool when evaluating abilities of any kind.

Using ESL as an example, an IELTS or English mark is one standard of assessment, but an interview designed to capture current competencies as a supplement may prove much more effective in accepting the right students in a competitive market. Competency testing also works in the favour of students, as there are likely many students with inflated marks that do not reflect actual ability; when these students are accepted into university-level courses, they often run the danger of crashing into insurmountable linguistic and other academic barriers. Clearly, best practice is to raise the academic bar for admissions.

At my own school, through English and Public Speaking classes, we are introducing the use of assessing and measuring competencies through secure video for two reasons. First, it is an excellent practice activity for students to articulate their ideas and communicate effectively without the aid of translators, AI, or any other type of electronic aid. It is, therefore, more of a true measure of ability, knowledge, and expression.

The second reason, of course, is preparation for the university admission process, which will certainly evolve in such a way as to gain more defences against cheating, inflated marks, and self-reported information through the use of secure video interviews and testing of written and spoken skills.

The key to success is the independent, thoughtful, accurate, and organized expression of ideas through more competency testing in the classroom and for the university admissions process now evolving. I know students will continue to appeal their marks and have a feverish reliance and allegiance to their mark, but hopefully, over time, as educators, we can wean them off the “marks addiction” and switch their present holy grail of marks allegiance to skills competencies and even the wild goal of a love of learning.


Mary Rempel
Marty Rempel has been an educator in many capacities and places, serving as a teacher in Kuwait and the Bahamas, Special Education Co-ordinator in Northern Alberta with Cree and Dene students, a principal in Jinhua, China, and currently a principal in Markham, ON, at a school catering to students from mainland China.

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.

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