Whose grade is it anyway?

One of the key performance indicators of higher education is the grade given to a student as part of the examination or assessment process. In order to ensure that the grade is appropriate and merited and is not influenced by improper considerations, various safeguards are built in. These include the consideration of grading by external examiners and boards of examiners, where marks can be reconsidered and adjusted.

However, such processes can become controversial, and indeed can raise accusations of inappropriate decision-making. In one Irish institute of technology recently some lecturers boycotted graduation ceremonies because they were unhappy about the adjustment of marks by appeal boards. One Canadian university has recently been in the spotlight for allegedly forcing a professor to lower his marks.

As the debate over the past year about ‘grade inflation’ has shown, the way in which student performance is assessed is one of the most critical issues in higher education. In order to ensure that grades are seen as appropriate and are respected, the system used needs to be impartial, transparent and intellectually demanding. In this context however, groups and boards can get it wrong just as easily as an individual, particularly if they pay excessive attention to institutional interests.

Occasionally it is suggested that the answer is to make this an administrative process, subject to bureaucratic procedures that will kick in particularly if the pattern of grades arouses suspicion, and more particularly still if grades are coming out too high. On the other hand, academic achievement is not a matter of administrative judgement, and should not become one. Equally however, the grades awarded are not necessarily an expression of ‘academic freedom’: I cannot insist that my marking standards should be applied even where they deviate from those of others.

There is no perfect way of dealing with this, but the one most likely to address problems is the system of external examiners, under which grades are checked by senior academics from other institutions to ensure that the system has integrity. However, this system, which relies heavily on personal and institutional goodwill, is coming under stress, in part because external examiners (now considered ’employes’ for revenue purposes) cannot be properly rewarded for what they do, and in part because the bureaucracy of assessment is threatening to overwhelm the system. Confidence in higher education depends strongly on assessment working well; we should be aware of that and, therefore, we should be willing to restate support for external examining as a vital element in maintaining a high quality system.

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5 Comments on “Whose grade is it anyway?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Of course it is also possible to ask what the role of marks and grades are in systems which are supposedly using learning outcomes (as per your earlier post). After all, shouldn’t a student, according to this model, be able to demonstrate achievement of the outcomes or not, ie its a Pass/Fail decision rather than anything else. ???

  2. Colum McCaffery Says:

    Stating “learning outcomes” can be a problem because students may “learn” and reproduce the “outcomes”. (I’ve tried to deal with this by stating “learning outcomes, basic” and “learning outomes, creative” – the latter requiring arguments.) For similar reasons turning marking into a routine would be a truly destructive measure. I have been very impressed with the system of boards and externs since I first saw them in action. I think too that markers should be required to explain their grades in a short report on each ansawer or essay graded. This works well in at least one school in UCD.

  3. copernicus Says:

    As an external examiner for 6 universities in my earlier life, I can say that except in one where I was worried about a particular lecturer’s physical threats to me when I queried about his random grading not according to any marking scheme, I trusted all other academics for their hardwork. On the other side, as an academic setting specislists papers for a masters module, I was flabbergasted to learn that the external examiner appointed to scrutinise the paper as well as the marked scripts was really a novice in the area concerned and I had hard-time making him understand even the basic concepts involved in the real-time computing systems.

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