Monday, June 07, 2010

Grade inflation once again

A recent article in the Irish Times refers to document prepared by the State Examination Commission acknlowledging grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate. This possibility is not new, of course, and has been widely discussed before, sometimes in heated terms. A group of academics at IT Tralee have argued that such inflation exists but many in the education establishment (if I can use that broad term) have taken a different view suggesting a combination of (i) a genuine increase in learning and (ii) an improved facility at taking the tests. By the latter I mean students are better able to "work the system" knowing the various tricks it takes to get high marks. Arguably (ii) should also be regarded as "inflation" to the extent that it does not correspond to an increase in intellectual ability or learning. Distinguishing empirically between these three possibilities ("pure" grade inflation", (i) and (ii)) is a tricky task and I am not sure that we have publicly available data that would allow one to do this reliably. That said, I think the guys at ITT have performed a tremendous public service in their work and are to be commended. Although they probably won't be.
So why should we care? The argument for not having grade inflation is that it corresponds to a lowering of academic standards with the diploma in question proving less useful as a signal of attainment to employers or indeed other educational establishments if they are recruiting the students . If everybody gets an A then its clearly a meaningless achievement. It may have negative effects for international investment if foreign employers are no longer convinced that we have a high quality labour force for them to draw on.
I think its useful to distinguish between different levels of education in this context. If the diploma in question is not an end-point in itself that it surely doesn't matter that much. That is essentially the case for the Junior Certificate now and indeed I believe that exams very future is being questioned. Its clearly not as true for the Leaving Certificate but to a large extent the Leaving has simply become a university entrance exam though this is not exactly what it is designed for. So its unclear to me that grade inflation, per se, at the Leaving level is a big problem. It just pushes up the "price", the points requirements - of course this is largely what economists expect inflation to do.
However it is a matter for concern if this inflation arises from possibility (ii) above. Because then it means we are getting the wrong students i.e. the universities are admitting students who are simply good at the test rather being actually good at the subject. It also imbues bad habits in students where they associate academic success with simply learning various hoops that have to be jumped through. However this is really a much wider question about the curriculum and its assessment.
Where grade inflation, to the extent that it exists, is much more of a concern is at third level. Thats where the concern about employers' perceptions is likely to be an issue. If you believe in efficient markets, rational expectations etc like any house-trained economist you might argue that employers will see through the inflation so its not a problem. They will learn, the argument goes, that an Irish B student is only as good as a German C student (purely hypothetically, I emphasize). I'm not that sanguine about this because of the clumping at the top of the distribution i.e. too many A's. However, there may be ways round this for example by looking at people's rank in the distribution which is inflation proof. Alternatively one can "mark to a curve".
So it seems to me that, in assessing the issue of grade inflation, we need to distinguish between different levels of education with a clear view not only to its extent (if any) but also to why exactly inflation is a problem and to consider assessment strategies that might obviate the problem.

1 comment:

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