Posted tagged ‘grade inflation’

‘Grade inflation’ – so what happens this weekend?

March 3, 2010

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.

Grade inflation, educational standards, and everything…

March 2, 2010

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.

Grade inflation and the quality of Irish education

March 1, 2010

As we learn from a report in today’s Irish Times, the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, has launched ‘two major investigations’ into grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in Irish universities. The Minister intends this to be a response to the comments that have been made recently by former Intel CEO and Chairman that the Irish educational system produces at best average outputs, reported in this blog, and similar comments by other representatives of industry.

The question is whether these ‘investigations’ are into the right issues. He doesn’t need to organise ‘investigations’, he just needs to ask his officials to give him the numbers, which are freely available. But what he really needs to do is to ask quite different questions:

• How can we maintain a world class educational system on declining resources?
• Is the syllabus for the Leaving Certificate appropriate for Ireland’s needs?
• Are we doing what we need to do to ensure students take subjects that are critical to industry’s needs?

This is almost certainly not a question about grade inflation, but about what it is we are able to do with the educational curriculum, and whether the education system has been both resourced sufficiently and modernised appropriately.

Dumbing down?

February 28, 2009

Earlier this month in Britain, the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was reported as saying that students who would have failed A-level mathematics in the 1980s were now ‘easily passing’ because of dumbing down under the British Labour Government. At almost exactly the same time researchers from the Institute of Technology in Tralee who had conducted a study on educational standards in Ireland reported that there was considerable grade inflation in Irish universities and colleges and concluded:

Grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards. Weaknesses inherent in the assessment process at third level have enabled an increasing divergence between academic performance and grades awarded.

The kind of evidence used by the Tralee team was that ‘in 1994 the percentage of first class honours awarded across the universities was 7%. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 17%.’

Complaints about grade inflation and falling standards are not new. In Britain they began to get serious circulation in the 1990s, so that every year when A-level results were issued and showed any improvements at all there were immediate shouts of dumbing down. We are now getting similar complaints about higher education.

Most people making such assertions are doing so on rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence. Students getting better results could be put down to one of any number of reasons: under pressure from parents and teachers, students may actually be working harder, teaching could be better, rising entry requirements by universities and the competition for places could be driving students to prepare more for exams; and so forth. Also, if the standards of final school examinations were slipping the universities would see this immediately through falling standards at third level and the need for more remedial teaching in first year. That this hasn’t happened (except in cases where entry points requirements have been lowered) suggests that the charge of dumbing down is not a good one.

If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates. In fact while there may recently have been a shortage of graduates in some sectors, there have been no suggestions that the quality of those coming through is lower than in the past; often the reverse is stated.

If we are targeting better performance by students leading to better results, as we are, we should resist the temptation to assume that something has gone wrong when those better results materialise. It may be the opposite, standards may be rising. From my experience, students nowadays work much harder and are much more aware of the impact of their results on their job prospects. You would expect them to work harder and get better results, which is what has happened.

I believe that changes to the curriculum and working methods at secondary schools are needed fairly urgently, and there is always room for a discussion about higher quality education at third level. But this objective is undermined when we start talking about dumbing down as being the obvious and necessary cause of higher grades. That is a sloppy use of facts and data, and at the very least needs a better qualitative analysis of the reasons for (as distinct from just the fact of) better examination results.