‘Grade inflation’ – so what happens this weekend?

According to the information revealed so far, the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe, has asked for the results (or an interim version of these) of the ‘investigations’ on grade inflation to be made available to him before the end of this week. As we already know this will tell him that, over a period of time, the proportion of higher classifications in examination or assessment results has increased in both the Leaving Certificate and in higher education. So he will be told that this is the case. Then what? Will steps be proposed or taken to restrict the universities’ and colleges’ freedom to classify results according to their rules?

In any case, what level of analysis will be applied? Will those failing examinations and/or dropping out be taken into consideration (they weren’t, I believe, in the IT Tralee study)? Will there be an analysis of the changing profile of students? Will the different pedagogical methods applied over the past decade or so be assessed?

The purpose of these questions is to demonstrate that the issues involved in shifting grades are not simple, and that the causes may be hard to pin down. There are also some risks involved, and it may be tempting for some to suggest causes where that suggestion could have wider social policy ramifications.

For example, the authors of the study in IT Tralee suggest by implication at least that widening access to third level education may damage standards; does this mean that we will start debating the merits of access? However, the evidence may point in quite a different direction: in DCU for example, access students (who sometimes enter the university on slightly reduced points) on average perform better than their non-access peers and are less likely to drop out.

What we should be recognising is that society as a whole has changed quite dramatically over the period in question, and so have students. The profile of the student body is different from what it was, and so are the things that motivate them and drive them. This has an impact on their performance.

In order to draw worthwhile conclusions – or indeed any valid conclusions at all – from the data on grades, we would need to undertake a far more sophisticated analysis of what has been happening to higher education. We need to ensure that we maintain a focus on that amidst all this sudden excitement.

Equally we need to accept that there are issues to answer about standards in the Irish education system right now, at all levels. Let us hope that the developing debate will be decisive, but also thoughtful rather than hysterical.

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10 Comments on “‘Grade inflation’ – so what happens this weekend?”

  1. Iainmacl Says:

    There’s a letter in today’s Irish Times pointing out the irony of Google complaining about standards when there are questions about the impact its search engine has on student work!

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2010/0303/1224265498741.html

  2. John Says:

    Just three comments:

    1) Look at what happened in the UK when a principled professor took a stand against institutionalised degree milling.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7332452/The-university-professor-who-stood-up-against-dumbing-down-of-degrees.html

    2) From what we know of Batt O’Keefe’s report (rigour aside), the obvious outlier is NUI Maynooth.

    3) I wonder to what extend does frequency of assessment (or method of final degree classification) reduce the scope for award inflation? UL uses a grade point average that gives equal weight to performance in 2nd, 3rd and 4th years. They also appear to have been least inclined towards award inflation.

    • Perry Share Says:

      I think that grade point average over the last 3 years of a programme is much fairer than basing outcomes on the last year alone. I don’t know why all institutions don’t do this. Also, I also suspect it would lead to a general flattening of results and would lead to less ‘grade inflation’, if such a thing exists.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Of course, maybe UL has lost out in the competition for students, maybe students aren’t going there because they realize that teaching in UL hasn’t improved as it has elsewhere, maybe the standstill in grade improvement is because the standard hasn’t improved!

        I don’t really believe that, but I don’t really believe the converse either.

    • John Says:

      @ Aoife
      I would add that correlation doesn’t prove causation but felt it was understood.

      What of my substantive point… that grade point averaging (an Americanism I know) reduces the scope for sympatheic grading at final year?

      On the original point of systemic award inflation (c. 110% in most universities; 700% in NUIM), a rigourous analysis would need to control for selection, teaching innovations and of course, the escalation of CAO points over the 15 yr interval.

      If Batt’s army of mandarins aren’t up to this one, perhaps the moaning millionaire execs of Google and Intel will loan (back) some of their talent for the task.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Re correlation and causation, do you know the xkcd on this: http://xkcd.com/552/

        As for gpa, what aspect of the gpa do you think is useful as a tool for combating so-called grade inflation? The fact that it is a multi-year average is irrelevant, students don’t score significantly higher here in their final year. Maybe you mean something about marking to a curve, but, of course, that isn’t right either, since it evaluates students relative to their cohort and so standards can go down without grades changing.

  3. belfield Says:

    “These tasks are being undertaken by colleges themselves and HETAC; the Further Education and Training Awards Council; the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board. All these agencies have been subject to external review by international panels and have been adjudged to be performing these functions to relevant international standards.

    Legislation is now being drafted to set up a new qualifications and quality assurance agency that will merge these bodies.”

    Now there’s a surprise…

  4. iain Says:

    sorry…wrong link…i meant the same as belfield:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2010/0304/breaking51.html

    isn’t this all part of a silly political game similar to this classic New Yorker cartoon?

    http://www.cartoonbank.com/1977/Thats-the-gist-of-what-I-want-to-say-Now-get-me-some-statistics-to-base-it-on/invt/116402

  5. Perry Share Says:

    You want to see why ‘grade inflation’ isn’t a problem in Korea, see here: http://bit.ly/bupErZ


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