Making the grade too easily?

It’s mid-summer, and so of course it’s the time of year for breathless comments about grade inflation in universities, and particularly about the number of students being awarded a top grade in their final examinations and assessments. This year again we are told that ‘one third of UK universities and colleges awarded the top grade to at least a quarter of their students.’ Indeed English universities are to expect the British government to initiate ‘a crackdown on the rapidly increasing proportion of top degrees being awarded by universities’.

Grade inflation, in so far as it is an issue, is not restricted to any particular country or system; indeed whatever grade inflation there may be in these islands 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). 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.

In reality 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. Should grades reflect performance, measured as objectively as possible, or should they separate a top-performing elite making up a fixed percentage of students (say, 10 per cent) from everyone else, regardless of the extent to which all these students meet any criteria for excellence?

In the end, the noise 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 and how we want to assess their performance and skills. 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. What we probably need least of all is politicians declaring from outside the system how many students (whose performance they have not seen) merit a top grade.

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2 Comments on “Making the grade too easily?”

  1. Vince Says:

    I believe most of the ire for this stems from when the EC caused a standardization back in the early Zeros. Huge numbers got caught in
    that cut off date for the Honours/Pass degree. And it had a very real effect on pay, especially in civil service and public service positions like teaching. There was a blatant lack of fairness when it would’ve been simply a desk exercise to convert the degrees.

  2. James Fryar Says:

    It’s only possible to directly compare two quantities if all other factors affecting those quantities remain constant. Since this is not the case, comparing marks of students today to marks of students a decade ago seems a pointless exercise. All that process tells us is that the system has changed, which isn’t much of a revelation.

    The question then is whether that change has been positive or negative. We have more students attaining some basic level of competence in the subjects they chose to study. That, to me, is a positive.

    And if the argument is that now we can’t tell the difference between the top students and the mediocre ones, then what’s the dividing line? 10%? 5%? 12.4%? These are just numbers we pick in some nonsensical attempt to draw a line across a broad continuum of abilities. Is a student scoring 90% really all that much better than one scoring 85%?

    Give students marks based on their performance in our current assessment methods and to hell with what marks previous generations got. It isn’t relevant.

    Every student gets a final mark and a reference letter from the faculty who interacted and assessed them. Job done. Problem solved!

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