Grade inflation – but this time somewhere else

Those who have been following the media excitement about grade inflation over the past two weeks may be aware that the apparent origin of the concern expressed in this matter by the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, was a meeting that he had with some senior executives in Ireland of US companies. Whether the topic for discussion actually was grade inflation – as distinct from issues to do with literacy and numeracy skills of graduates and the particular subject areas in which they were qualified – may be a question that could be asked, but at any rate after this meeting the Minister launched his investigations and made his comments.

However, grade inflation, in so far as it is an issue, is not a particularly Irish one; indeed whatever grade inflation there may be in Ireland is not so significant when compared with grade inflation elsewhere. And as it happens, some of the most serious grade inflation, over a protracted period of time going back to the 1940s, has been in the United States, and is continuing into the present time (whereas in Ireland grade inflation largely stopped earlier in the last decade). Indeed this has reached a point where some American educators are pointing out that there is no longer any objective way in which the grades of really excellent students can numerically be distinguished from those who are merely good, because an increasingly large percentage of results is clustered around the top of the range of marks.

Again, even this does not particularly tell us that unmerited grades are being awarded, but rather that there may not be an adequate consensus around various pedagogical issues including assessment methods and outputs.

In the end, the noise that has been in the system around grade inflation may encourage us to ask more significant educational questions about what exactly it is we want a university education to provide. If that is what we get from all this it will be a good thing. But if we remain stuck in the groove of claims and counter-claims about trends in examination results we are unlikely to address the real pedagogical issues. Let us hope we get it right.

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