Silence the grades whingers forever

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Pupils now finishing their A-levels can look forward to the annual celebration of falling standards when they get their results. The way it works is this: if there are more passing and high grades then that just proves that standards have dropped; but if there are fewer passing and high grades it proves that this generation is less well educated than their elders.

I imagine that Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips both have two opinion pieces written already, one for each eventuality, so that they can pick out the relevant one when the results come out. You can't win, so there is no point trying. Just do your best in the exams.

It might be reassuring to know that we have the same problem here in the United States. We even have a name for it: "grade inflation". Critics of schools and universities observe that grades have risen over time, so that in some universities, for example, an A is the normal grade for a course, whereas 30 years ago there was a much wider distribution of grades.

Eminent Harvard history professor, Harvey Mansfield, made a splash some years ago with an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he accused his colleagues of lax grading toward female and minority students, and pandering to students whose evaluations of them are used in promotion and salary decisions.

The main problem in the US is that, in universities and schools, almost all the grades that count are assigned by one's own classroom teacher, without any requirement of anonymity. Brits find this incredible when come across it. In that context, if students evaluate teachers, you would indeed expect grade inflation, and I confess that before doing any research I assumed that Mansfield was more or less right.

But it turns out that, as in the A-level case, there is simply no evidence of inflation at all. Think about Harvard and Yale. It is true that the grades have been going up over the past 30 years, but two other things have happened in that time also.

The colleges no longer discriminate against women, so the number of excellent students they admit has doubled. And they no longer admit the dull-witted children of wealthy former students.

It is as inconceivable that the 18-year old George W Bush would be admitted to Yale today as it is that the 18-year old Charles Windsor would be admitted to Cambridge. There is simply no reason to attribute the improved grades to inflation, and every reason to attribute them to improved students. That would not explain overall increases in secondary school or A-level grades of course.

Yes, girls are now much better educated and academically ambitious as a whole than in the past, and this might account for some of the increases.

But overall the talent pool is not that different. But, dare I say it, improved teaching might account for grade increases.

Unlike Mansfield I am not content with anecdotes to explain a social phenomenon. So I looked for studies that compare examination scripts over time.

It would be easy enough to take scripts from 1980 exams and have them marked blind alongside contemporary answers to the same questions. If they receive higher grades now than they did in 1980, that would be evidence of inflation. If not, that would be evidence against.

But I can find no such studies. In the US, teachers do not keep old exams for more than a couple of years so there is no database to work on. I do not know how long British exam boards keep old scripts, or whether they would be willing to include very old questions in exams for the sake of the studies. But, if so, it should not be hard to find out the truth, at least in those subjects where the knowledge base and forms of assessment have not changed radically over time.

So, when the great falling standards game starts up in August, ask the pundits to fund a rigorous, independent study or, better still, ignore them.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin

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