Grade inflation, educational standards, and everything…

Yesterday was one of those days – the Minister for Education and Science tells the world (via the Irish Times) that he is investigating grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in higher education, and immediately a confused (or at least confusing) debate gets under way about standards. The problem with this is, however, that all sorts of different (and not necessarily even related) issues get thrown together. Let me try to disentangle them a little.

First, it seems to me that the allegation of ‘grade inflation’ (where the sub-text is that students are now receiving marks they would not have received some years ago and which they do not objectively deserve) is a complete distraction. Yes, the Minister’s ‘investigations’ will show (as we already all know, as the figures are readily available) that the proportion of students getting higher grades has risen. But this is hardly surprising, as students’ working methods have changed dramatically, as have the pressures on them to perform to the highest possible standards: their success in the labour market depends on it. So students work harder and are driven to maximise their grades by making tactical choices about which subjects they study and how the do their work. In any case, if we benchmark our exam results against other countries, we will find that Irish grades are still relatively lower than elsewhere. It is perhaps strange that Google, a US company, is said to have complained, since the highest grade inflation of all has been in the United States. Also, while grades may have risen in third level institutions, student attrition has also, mostly caused by failed examinations. There is simply no evidence that Irish universities and colleges have been dumbing down.

It is odd that the Minister cited former Intel CEO Craig Barrett’s recent speech as the catalyst for his concerns about ‘grade inflation’, because Mr Barrett made no comment whatsoever about this issue; I can say this with confidence, as I was there. What he did say was that the Irish education system was now no better than average, and that in terms of international competition this was not adequate. His main worry was that we were not graduating sufficient numbers in mathematics and science, as these subjects were the basis of all the new industries. Other industry representatives have warned about the insufficient number of graduates with qualifications in software engineering and biotechnology. This is hugely important, but completely unrelated to grade inflation.

Then, during an interview on RTE radio, the Minister allowed himself to be walked into a statement that some unnamed Irish third level institution or institutions in particular were considered to be below the expected quality threshold. This is an incredibly damaging statement, and I suspect one without any foundation, and it should not have been made (or at least not without very solid evidence). It must be acknowledged that the Minister was pushed into responding to a point put to him, but it was still an unfortunate response.

Lest all of this sounds too defensive, let me emphasise that we do indeed have a problem, or indeed a series of problems, in Irish education. We have two main issues. The first is that we have a school system that is offering an education that, while staffed by dedicated teachers, is largely out of date, with questionable learning methods and with a syllabus that is not sufficiently adapted to society’s changing needs. The wholly inadequate proportion of students doing Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate is an example of that issue. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge that we reinforce this by allowing the very questionable influence of the CAO points system to continue. The second problem is in higher education itself, where we have built up expectations of a world class system that we are however unable to deliver due to rapidly declining resources and huge financial instability, accompanied moreover by an exponentially rising tide of bureaucratic controls. We have generated targets of participation rates in higher education that would, if achieved, take us amongst the top countries in the world for third level qualifications, but with resources only just better than those of a developing country. This cannot succeed, and we must move swiftly to ensure that the resourcing framework is sufficient, stable, predictable and focused on the right results in terms of educational outputs.

Yesterday’s announcements by the Minister were quickly followed by me-too statements from Fine Gael and Labour; as far as I know, none of these thought it might be helpful to have private discussions with the universities before picking up the megaphone. In the end none of this was helpful. Setting up investigations into grade inflation means getting lots of dogs to bark up the wrong tree. We do have a problem, probably even several problems; but we won’t solve them by going after something else entirely.

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9 Comments on “Grade inflation, educational standards, and everything…”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Ok so to carry on with grade inflation: one extra note, if Google or anyone are using overall final mark as a single measure for discriminating between candidates, they are insane. Ability is not scalar, we have abilities to do certain things, there is no meaningful overall measure of ability and the final grade does not pretend to be one, instead it is aligned to the degree programme, it tests how well students have learned and understood what they have been taught, for paedogical reasons it has to. This is our concern: teaching students and using exams as a tool in that process. Producing a grade which is useful for assessing ability to do a particular job is not an obvious competence for us, rather it is a required competence of employers.


  2. I’ve just seen today’s Irish Times, and notice that Brendan Guilfoyle thinks that his team’s research was met with ‘off-hand dismissals’ from me (assuming I am the ‘blogging president’ he refers to)! Brendan, we engaged in detailed discussions of this on my blog, where I set out in some detail why I didn’t agree with your methodology. Maybe I disagreed with you, but ‘off-hand’?

    Here’s the exchange from almost exactly a year ago:
    https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/dumbing-down/

    Debate is always good!

  3. Liam Delaney Says:

    At no stage in this discussion did the Minister reference any discussion or opinion whatsover with serious academic scholars. I take undergraduate teaching very seriously and would welcome input from serious individuals on how to improve the parts of the programme that I contribute to. The fact that the Minister seems only willing to take soundings from people who do not conduct academic research is the most frustrating thing about seeing him in action.

    The continuous undifferentiated badmouthing of Irish students is also becoming intolerable for me. I have worked over the last five years with students who would (and have) cut it anywhere in the world. Sure, there is a lot of differences in ability and we could aid the signaling process by incorporating distribution of grades on the transcripts. But to only focus on the academically weaker students is ridiculous. We have never had a proper open discussion about how to handle very high-ability students on Irish campuses and they are being treated badly at the moment.

  4. Vincent Says:

    Why is it that any of this rubbish is being given serious consideration. What type of Minister of Education in the middle of a recession is going to run down the very engine that may carry the economy out. And as to the sour grape merchants, well it tough that the young Turks have ‘M’ where you have ‘B’, but that’s life, get over it. The moaning Minnie’s that go on about grade inflation are really ticked off by the degree deflation caused by the numbers.

  5. belfield Says:

    Interesting timing though…. I remember reading somewhere recently about ways to soften-up an organisation for a policy offensive. Deride and pile on the ‘something must be done about this’ rhetoric figured highly in the gameplay.

  6. Big Bad John Says:

    Well!
    I graduated as a mature student in 1999. Our particular class had something over 100 students and there were three of us (including myself) who obtained a first. I shall also oversome my natural modesty to point out that I had the highest overall mark.
    I know that I worked my socks off and that I’m also fortunate enough to be quite bright. I have no doubt whatsoever that I earned my honours degree.
    However, if I were now looking for a job (I’m not thankfully) I’d feel a bit sore that the natural inclination of a potential employer would be to slice a bit off the value of my academic qualifications.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      It would be odd if this, rather than your achievements over the subsequent eleven years, formed the basis of a potential employers decision.

      • Big Bad John Says:

        Aoife, you’re right of course. Maybe I’m making too big a deal of it! In any case, the point I make is (no pun intended) somewhat academic so far I am concerned personally as my current job will most likely be my last as I’m due to retire in the next couple or three years.

    • Perry Share Says:

      I was one of 2 people (both sociologists – hah!) that obtained a first in my class of 250 (this was in the early 1980s). I was told by one of my lecturers that it was institutional policy not to actually award any firsts, as this would only encourage people. It was only (he said) the intervention of the UK-based extern that led to them awarding any at all. The fact that one of the so-called elite universities could only award less than 0.5% of firsts to a whole cohort of students was ridiculous – I know that there were significant numbers of people in my class who were very smart. If they had known then what we know now about exam technique and instrumental study approaches there would have been a much higher proportion of firsts. In those days virtually none of the students (and I suspect only some of the staff)had a notion of how the assessment system worked and of course there was no written information available to students.

      My contention would be that the proportion of firsts were previously kept artificially low by a combination of academic snobbery and a complete failure to communicate about how the assessment system worked. I don’t know why we put up with it.


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