Editorial - Grade inflation isn't the question and inflating the number of grades isn't the answer

17th June 2011 at 01:00

It seems there is a new exam grade in town - the freshly minted "A* with distinction" (page 7). As yet it only exists in one IGCSE. But exam boards are like credit card companies. Once one of them has decided that platinum is the new gold, the rest follow suit - until one of them introduces black as the new platinum. The A** will one day be followed by the A***, which in turn will prompt a F*** or two from exasperated teachers.

The reason for this continual redefinition of exclusivity is of course grade inflation - the tendency of more pupils over time to improve their exam marks. There is no consensus over why this is happening. Pessimists believe it is because exams are getting easier, optimists because teachers and pupils are making progress. Whatever the reason, the consequence is the same - it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between good students and truly excellent ones.

The problem could be solved by returning to norm referencing, where set percentages of pupils are allocated the same grade every year. But that would please neither pessimists nor optimists because it doesn't reflect improvement or decline in achievement. So we spiral upwards in ever more refined gradations. Unfortunately, this satisfies no one. Those pupils formerly known as excellent are now merely good, while those who are newly excellent cannot be sure that the new gold standard will never be superseded. It's Groundhog Day meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Is this mad carousel necessary? It is according to the universities, which find making offers to equally qualified pupils difficult. Lest schools forget, universities are institutions that charge the same fees for widely different courses because they are all equally excellent. In recent years they have awarded ever-greater numbers of the best degrees to ever-more students. This, it should be noted, is because universities are continually improving and not because they have lost their sense of irony.

If the country came up with a tougher exam regime, would it be satisfied? The evidence suggests not. Results over the past few years at key stage 2 have largely flatlined. Strangely, the headlines never shout: "Standards maintained as significant proportion of children fail".

Our obsession with grading, sorting and slicing knowledge says more about us as a country than it does about the state of our education system. We idolise past standards because we fear we don't own the future. We worry foolishly about fixing a benchmark in time that cannot be fixed because the world in which children absorb and assess knowledge moves on. And yet we neglect to address fundamentally important questions - like what is education is for? Perhaps that isn't so surprising. After all, how do you grade a question like that?

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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