The Reality of Higher Grades

OECD report findingsAccording to a recent report by The State Exams Commission: Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate students are continuing to secure higher grades in both exams compared with pupils from a decade ago.

However, in contrast, the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) most recent findings indicate a significant decline in literacy and numeracy standards in Ireland. Their results identify a dramatic decline in academic standards among Irish teenagers since 2000. For example, in the reading test, Ireland’s ranking fell from 5th place in 2000 to 17th in 2009. This decline was the largest among 39 countries surveyed. On maths, Ireland ranked a lowly 32nd among 65 participating countries.

There are commentators speculating that the SEC’s statistics will lead to repeated claims that the Leaving and Junior Certificate exams are being ‘dumbed down’; last year, 76%  of students gained an A, B or C on a higher level English paper compared with 65% in 2000.

Perhaps, the contrasting SEC and OECD findings can be explained by many factors; one being that in the present educational climate, nearly 70% of students are taking grinds – extra tuition that does not spend time addressing literacy and numeracy needs but attempts to predict exam questions and rehearsing answers over and over again. According to the SEC, only a tiny percentage of students failed either ordinary or foundation level English in the Junior Cert exam – even though the OECD reported that close to 25 per cent of Irish 15-year-old males were ‘functionally illiterate’. The OECD report is internationally recognised as the most reliable guide to academic standards. Almost 4,000 Irish students were assessed in 2009.The SEC continues to insist there has been no diminution of standards in the Leaving or Junior Cert exams. Last year, the chief examiner in English concluded: ‘There has been no discernible diminution of standards in literacy in the Junior Cert over the past decade. In fact, a welcome consistency was found when comparing scripts across the same grade bands.’

However, HEIs are now taking in students doing better in terms of grades – hence the consistent rise in points over the last few years; yet the same students, who are achieving higher grades are presenting with literacy and numeracy difficulties. Over 30% of students in first year actually drop out before they complete one academic year; a percentage of this cohort are unable to cope with course content and assignments.

Regardless of the SEC and OECD findings, there are consequences to Grade Inflation, especially if this Grade Inflation is not a true reflection of academic attainment and knowledge. Grade Inflation undermines the delivery of quality education. Because grades are no longer a realistic representation of actual performance, the value of examinations as a quality control mechanism on educational standards is undermined. Both teachers and students grow less motivated to achieve since apparent success can be attained with less effort. Society at large is misled about the natural limits that exist to real educational achievement. At the same time due to the educational process becoming degraded, the capabilities of the more academically talented in society are squandered. Employers are faced with the not inconsiderable challenge of differentiating between those whose qualifications and grades are backed up by actual learning and the great many whose grades are deeply misleading. At the same time, both employers and in a broader sense the nation suffers the consequences of poorer standards of education.

Grade inflation left unchecked for long enough is likely to seriously damage our international competitiveness and our economy as a whole. This reality has been recognised by Forfas, the state agency with responsibility for providing policy advice to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, on enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation in Ireland. In a submission to the Department of Education and Science it stated:

‘future enterprise will require a greater proportion of highly skilled graduates and this has implications for the quality of degree programmes as well as rates of progression to advanced degrees.’

There is a significant body of opinion, both in the enterprise community and among academics that standards have declined in the Irish education system over the past decade, both at second and third level. The dangers associated with grade inflation, which we certainly cannot avoid indefinitely, are likely to arise from two sources. Firstly grade inflation is not only undermining education at the lower end. It inevitably undermines standards at the top end as well where education really does matter for our economy. In simple terms when 15 or 20% of graduates – drawn from a weaker talent pool – are obtaining first class honours, the standard at the top end has fallen well below the capabilities of the truly talented. Poorer education in that realm will really matter for how well we compete internationally. The second danger arises out of the drift of less demanding jobs to lower cost economies or their replacement by mechanisation of one kind or another. We almost certainly will require a higher proportion of well-educated individuals as time passes because the only option will be to replace lower skill with higher skill employment. An educational system undermined by decades of grade inflation, grown complacent by the fact that poor standards were adequate for so long, will find it very difficult to adjust when the need arises.

In terms of a decade ago, we were achieving lower grades but some would argue our level of practical and transferable intelligences/skills was higher compared to today. A decade ago there was no grind industry as a mechanism to inflate poor grades and students knew their limits when we were essentially independent learners outside of the classroom. Today, examiners have to resort to the ‘Norm Curve’ to curb the amount of students deserving of As and Bs. Resorting to the ‘Norm Curve’ graph to tame the grade inflation, is perhaps worrying in itself, in the eyes of the academia and other interested bodies.

Many would question: Are the exams themselves an adequate system to qualify students? Are there weaknesses in an examination system that qualifies and delivers students into HEIs that essentially should not be there in the first place? Indeed, it is a matter of celebration to achieve a number of As and Bs. However, it seems that students’ choice of course and career is determined by their grades rather than by their genuine interest; actual grades that are not always a true representation of ability and aptitude. That causes problems in itself – both personally and professionally.

Higher Grades being produced year after year, on the surface, indicates on one level a progressive society but continuous grade inflation might spell a new issue that will have to addressed by the examination system itself.

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