Grade Inflation – Some people are smarter than others

Introduction

Greek tragedy often involves arrogance leading to foolishness and destruction. This can occur with the assignment of academic grades, where number and letter grades are experiencing a process of grade inflation. It is not unlike price inflation which can give misleading information about the growth of an economy, as in the case of measuring Gross Domestic Product in current dollars. Grade inflation provides misleading information to students, teachers, admissions officers assessing students for entrance to post secondary institutions, to employers and to the public. While neither the educational system nor the economy will be destroyed, both can be weakened. And there are alternatives to consider.

Academic grade inflation

One example of grade inflation is the number of Ontario scholars, those with an average of 80% or more in their graduating school year. It has risen from less than 20% in the 1970s to over 60% today. I found the actual figures hard to come by as the provincial authorities did not answer my requests for what I thought would be easy to access information.

Province wide exams in Ontario were abolished in the 1960s following the Hall Dennis report which recommended that each school mark its own students. Teachers warned that this would lead to grade inflation. Foolishness prevailed, inflation took place and now when standardized testing is proposed teachers (and others) oppose it, recognizing that it could be used as a measure of their teaching as well as the performance of a school. The problem is then passed on to post-secondary institutions, which themselves have issues regarding the assignment and meaning of grades.

University grades are discussed on the freely available website The Conversable Economist for August 6, 2014. A quote from it:

“Here’s a link to a November 2011 post…on “Grade Inflation and Choice of Major.” Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy write: Even if grades were to instantly and uniformly stop  rising, colleges and universities are, as a result of five decades of mostly rising grades, already grading in a way that is divorced from actual student performance, and not just in an average nationwide sense. A is the most common grade at 125 of the 135 schools for which we have data on recent (2006–2009) grades. At those schools, A’s are more common than B’s by an average of 10 percentage points. Colleges and universities are currently grading, on average, about the same way that Cornell, Duke, and Princeton graded in 1985. Essentially, the grades being given today assume that the academic performance of the average college student in America is the same as the performance of an Ivy League graduate of the 1980s.”

 

There has been debate over grades assigned at Carleton and Ottawa Universities in the past, and at other Canadian universities, so that this is not only a US issue.

In 1989, the Ottawa Citizen published the list of Ontario Scholars by school in the Ottawa area, those with an 80% plus average. The top scholar amongst all schools (Lisgar) had a 99.1% average. Of the 41 schools listed, all but 3 had a top scholar with 90% plus average. One of the three was Elmwood, a private school where the top student had an 89.3% average. I had been a member of the Board of Governors of Elmwood where the school was frequently pressured by parents to give higher grades, in order that graduates would be able to compete for university places and for awards with those graduating from the public school system, where higher grades were given.

This was a fair concern, but Elmwood graduates seemed to do all right as university authorities knew that private schools tended to give lower grades and made allowance for it in their admission decisions. I am not sure whether this happened with the award of scholarships.

Grades signal to students, their parents and to outsiders (potential employers and post secondary educational institutions) information about the students. These now have to be evaluated carefully because of inflation. While universities state that they treat a given grade from one school the same as from another, experience suggests that this may not be the case, and they use judgment when making decisions about admissions and awards. In the same way that price inflation undermines the value of a currency, so grade inflation affects the value of or the information provided by a grade.

But the effects do not end there because, as noted, grade inflation takes place at universities as well. Undergraduates want high marks for their first degree so that they gain admission and scholarships for graduate study. Acceptance at graduate school depends on a combination of grades, reference letters from faculty and statement of interest by the candidate.

Are there alternatives?

When a figure or grade loses its information value, other measures are used. At the school level, an obvious one is the use of common exams for different institutions where the grading takes place by independent or common examiners. There are a number of examples:

  • Province wide exams as occurred in Ontario up to the 1970s
  • Some province wide exams in Alberta
  • A-level exams as used in the UK and other countries for university admission
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB) program
  • The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

In each case there is the criticism that instruction will be focused on passing the exam rather than providing a more general education. While this can be the case, the alternative of a system which results in grade inflation and requires other, often unclear, means of evaluation by those comparing students for admission and awards is in my view preferable.

UK universities have traditionally used the A-level exam process which involves a narrowing of subjects studied, and forces students to decide on a particular discipline before they are knowledgeable about the available choices. The IB which requires a broader set of subjects is being recognized for university admission in the UK and elsewhere. Exactly how IB results and A-level results are compared is unclear to me, but some process must be used by admission officers. Use of the IB moves the British system towards the liberal arts approach of North American universities, where specialization takes place in later years of an undergraduate program or with a postgraduate degree. I prefer the liberal arts approach, but more importantly English speaking students with the right qualifications now have a choice of which program approach to pursue.

The IB program is not without its critics, but these seem to stem mostly from the fact that the Geneva based Director General of the program was caught plagiarizing in a speech he gave, a sin which the program warns about in the case of IB students – See Times Educational Supplement Sept. 17, 2010 and subsequent issues.

Conclusion 

There appears some hope that arrogance and foolishness may not be followed by destruction. The present era of entitlements pressures politicians to create educational systems which grant equal treatment to all students, even though there is clear evidence that the distribution of academic abilities is bell shaped. Some people are smarter than others. Not all will benefit from an academic post secondary education. Some will benefit from the subjects taught in community and trade based colleges. Some will benefit from on-the-job experience, either with or without further education. Some people will earn more than others because they have different skills. There are means to reduce income inequalities other than by weakening, perhaps destroying, the educational system.

Some further sources:
Professor James Cote of Western University is an authority in this field.
The UCAS website deals with conversion standards for universities
The IB website at ibo.org/recognition/
The truthaboutIB website is generally critical of the IB

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One Response to “Grade Inflation – Some people are smarter than others”

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