There has been much discussion in recent weeks about ‘grade inflation’, the implication being that the improvement in grades at third level, especially first class honours grades, reflects a drop in standards. I have said before in this blog that I think this whole debate is a red herring given the huge changes that have occurred in third level education over the last two decades: like is not being compared with like. These changes include semesterisation (more, shorter exams based on smaller amounts of material), the increased used of continuous assessment, cannier students, a far greater emphasis on teaching and learning quality, far better student support and the rise of denominated entry.
But even if there were no changes at all, arguments based on grade distributions should come with one major health warning and it is this: marking exams is not an exact science. Even in the largely quantitative engineering subjects that I teach, there is a considerable degree of subjectivity in how I mark. Students have a habit of approaching exam problems in unexpected ways and assigning a robust mark is often very difficult. There are degrees of ‘rightness’ and degrees of ‘wrongness’ and one often has to balance things like the knowledge contained in an answer with the coherence of that answer, not to mention the presence or absence of scientific and mathematical ‘heresies’. These are very personal judgments that we all make as we plough through our scripts.
Similarly, there are many disciplines that use an internal standard such that the vast majority of marks are clustered between 50% and 70%. This is an entirely subjective way of marking. Even Seamus Heaney might only get 70% in a poetry exam: the view, presumably, would be that it is impossible to write the perfect poem. On the other hand, engineers and mathematicians mark between 0 and 100%. This year, for example, I had a paper in which one student got 17% and one achieved the magic 100%. I had no choice but to give the 100% because the answers were objectively perfect. But on another day, the 17% could have been close to zero . (So, any change in the distribution of disciplines at third level will inevitably lead to changes in the distribution of grades.)
If we are to make any sense of ‘grade inflation’, we have to come up with a way of controlling for the effect of the changes that have occurred in third level itself but also for the effect of changes, if any, in how exams are marked. A greater willingness to go beyond the 70% barrier in many disciplines – a subjective but reasonable decision – would have an immediate impact on the number of first class honours grades.