Grade Deflation

Consider the data presented below. It’s a plot of the percentage of H1 and H2.1 degrees from a single third level programme over an 11 year period versus median CAO Points at entry. The lack of any correlation between the two variables is striking.


The two explanations for this lack of correlation are (i) CAO points just don’t measure the sorts of skills and personal attributes that are required to perform well at third level and (ii) the system is beset with grade inflation.

But nearly every academic I know believes, based on experience, that CAO points are a good indicator of basic intelligence, work ethic and general engagement with education. So what’s going on?

One way to think about this lack of correlation is to look at it from a slightly different perspective. Rather than presuming that grade inflation occurs, isn’t it just as reasonable to presume that grade deflation occurs? In other words, as the CAO points for a course rise, the students are challenged more and expected to be more independent – it becomes harder to achieve high grades.

I have said this before on this blog but I think the system tends to be self-adjusting. A lecturer rapidly gets a sense from a class as to the ‘appropriate’ level at which to pitch the material and as to the ‘appropriate’ way to teach and assess the material. A very simple example of this is the introduction of continuous assessment, something that is often done (quite reasonably) in response to high failure rates in terminal exams.

As long as this self-adjustment goes on, i.e., as long as the system is responsive, we will never find any predictor of third level performance.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Grade Deflation

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Grade Deflation

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