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Death By Grade Inflation

September 27, 2012

Any examination process infected with the grade inflation virus is counting down its days if the requisite prophylaxis is not administered in time. Grades cannot rise indefinitely without eventually undermining the credibility and utility of the whole endeavour.

However, it takes time and, as with other self-sustaining dynamics such as witnessed here in the property boom, everyone can blithely continue on as if tomorrow will never come.

Come it will, and come it has for the GCSE examination in England and Wales.  It is the first fatality of the grade inflation epidemic which has for years been raging through these isles and beyond.

British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has announced that the GCSE, the standard school leaving examination, is to be abolished. Commenting that the current system had “narrowed the curriculum,” encouraged teachers to “teach to the test” and encouraged school heads to offer children “the softest possible options,” he said “It is time to tackle grade inflation and dumbing down.”

The decision to abolish the GCSE is unusually radical and what replaces it may not be to everyone’s taste. Out goes much course work and continuous assessment. Back in comes a focus on terminal examinations. Resitting modules will not be allowed. There will be unpredictable questions to forestall teaching to the test. The emphasis will be on core subjects such as English, Maths and Science. There will be many, particularly proponents of more ‘liberal education’ who view this as a return to a less enlightened and more authoritarian past.

British Education Secretary, Michael Gove

British Education Secretary, Michael Gove

Enter the Opportunists?

They may be right. Confirmation by the Minister that a sizable proportion of school leavers will fail the proposed replacement exams will do little to allay those fears. The current British Government, despite its Liberal (with a capital letter) rump, is hardly to be considered socially progressive.

It is the kind of Government that might well show scant regard in its reforms for the needs of the socially disadvantaged or for the advancement of equity in society. That is exactly the risk that is run when systems are allowed to fall into disrepute. That is arguably what gave Britain Margaret Thatcher and the curse of her eponymous ideology.

For failures to reform political and social sources of malaise often opens the way for a snake-oil wielding charlatan to offer redemption. The replacement for the GCSE may not be snake-oil. It may be perfectly sensible. Time will tell, but either way, there is a salutary lesson here for everyone. Stop the rot before the rot stops you.

A Death Foretold

God knows, the rot besetting the GCSE examination was plain enough for all to see. Back in 1988 when the examination commenced, 8.4% of grades awarded were at the top level: A. This year, 22.4% were either at the level of A or A*. The super A or A* was introduced in 1994 because the A was getting so common. Of course the A* also grew ever more common also as time passed because the root problem was not dealt with.

Looking more widely at grades, in 1988 41.9% of GCSE grades awarded across all subjects were either an A, B or C. Every single year since then up to 2011 that total increased reaching 69.8% (including A*), falling back to 69.4% in 2012. Poor grades, of course, fairly went out of fashion. In 1988 29.1% were either an E or an F. By 2012, that figure had been slashed to 11.8%.

There were those who claimed that all this was good news, that students were learning more all the time, that teaching was getting better, that students were more motivated etc etc.  But the British qualifications’ regulator Ofqual (interesting concept – should we have one here?), concluded that the examination papers were just getting easier.

The Leaving Certificate

All of this is familiar stuff to anyone in Ireland who has been paying attention to the Leaving Certificate examination over the years. A 2009 report by the Network for Irish Educational Standards looked at the change in the grade rates between 1992 and 2006 for the 24 higher level and the 20 ordinary level subjects which attracted at least 500 candidates per year. All 24 higher level subjects showed an increased rate of combined A and B grades in 2006 over 1992, with an average increase of 54.7%. Eighteen of the twenty ordinary level subjects showed an increase in A and B grades with an average increase of 101.2%.

There is some good news, however. Since 2006 the slide appears to have been largely halted. A quick comparison of the percentage of A and B grades awarded in 2012 by comparison with 2006, as reported on the Examination Commission website, showed that 10 of the 23 most popular higher level subjects (more than 500 candidates in both 2006 and 2012) including English and Mathematics showed a decline in the top grades as did 11 of the 20 most popular ordinary level subjects including English, Irish and Mathematics.

Across all higher level subjects that attracted 500 or more candidates, the average percentage of A and B grades together was 44.6% in 2006 and 45.8% in 2012. This average does not take account of varying numbers taking different subjects. A similar comparison of ordinary level subjects produced averages of 33.2% in each case. After the long period of grade increase dating back to at least 1992, the post 2006 figures suggest that grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate has been largely arrested.

In Remission – But For How Long?

Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn, has announced that the Leaving Cert will be the subject of major reforms

Though very important, it is not enough to halt grade inflation. The damage to standards of genuine learning masked behind the long period of misleading grade increase needs to be reversed. The signals are that the Leaving Certificate is bound for reform. Let’s hope that reform when it comes is sensible and that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.

For example the recommendation by the Irish University Association that the Leaving Certificate grading system of 14 points be replaced with an 8 point system is plain barmy. As can be seen from our 2011 report, Irish Universities are losing the ability to distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly, and one of the reasons is because of the severely limited grading range for awards.

It could be argued that the reason the Leaving Certificate has maintained its ability to distinguish between students is the large number of grades available. To throw this out because “less granularity in assessments can potentially lead to positive developments in assessment” would be foolhardy.

While the Junior Certificate is not the same animal as the Leaving and there may be a matter of horses for courses, it is a little disquieting to see Ireland going in the direction of more reliance on coursework to assess performance just when the English, having tried it in the GCSEs, have turned their back on this approach and plan to return to traditional examinations.

We have something of a history of belatedly following international trends just when other countries have realised the error of their ways. Any folly in the design of our end of school examinations will cost us dearly as a nation. Reforms had better be well researched and properly thought through.

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