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Grade inflation is not the way to resolve an exam kerfuffle

August 13, 2020

This year, it was decided that exams would be cancelled due to COVID-19, and grades for years 11 and 13 in England (and, as I now know from the news, for higher students in Scotland) would be decided by a mixture of centre assessed grades (CAGs) and a statistical model based on rankings provided by centres. Both elements of this have their limitations, and that is why a combination is necessary. It remains to be seen how effectively this will be done. In England, I suspect it will work well for GCSEs, but I’m not sure about A Levels. In Scotland, the Scottish government gave in to pressure and accepted CAGs as grades, despite them being much higher and results this year now being massively different from previous years. There is a widespread misconception that in normal years, exams represent an objective standard and luck does not play a role in allocating grades. For people who believe this, this year’s system is completely broken no matter how accurately it might predict what students would have got. Moreover, there is also a belief that when an exam system has a problem, grade inflation is a solution.

I would argue that inaccurate grades create their own problems, and that honesty, by which I mean maximising accuracy in predictions, is the best policy. I am aware that there are unavoidable difficulties. Schools and individuals whose success (or failure) this year is unprecedented will not get the grades they would have got. I’ve also worked in schools where assessment was poor, and I hate to think how their rankings will be compiled. But for large cohorts, CAGs will not be more accurate than a model that corrects the tendency towards over-estimation. It flies in the face of mathematics to deny that if grades are inflated, they are less likely to be accurate, although there appear to be many involved in education who claim a large systematic bias in a single direction is not a source of inaccuracy. It’s been reported that A-level grades at A-A* would have gone up from 27% to 38% if CAGs had been used. Nobody can argue that such grades would have been accurate.

Grade inflation is not a victimless crime. It does have real, negative effects. Firstly, devalued grades take opportunities away from those who have received them in the past, as their grades start to be interpreted according to lower standards. Secondly, inflated grades create inconvenience for employers and educational institutions who will find them harder to interpret. Thirdly, some of those who receive grades they never would have achieved without grade inflation will find themselves in courses and jobs for which they are unsuitable. Fourthly, if the rate of grade inflation is not uniform across the system, some will lose out relative to their peers. This is particularly noticeable in Scotland, where there is evidence that grades were inflated more for some socio-economic groups than others. Finally, students in the following year will lose out if the higher pass rates are not maintained, particularly if students can defer for a year before going to university. I would expect there to be pressure in Scotland to keep the much higher pass rates from this year for next year – although a cynic might wonder whether such pressure is easier to resist further away from an election.

There is also a bigger picture here. This might seem like a one-off event, but this is not the first exam kerfuffle for which some have advocated massive grade inflation as a solution. When a new modular English GCSE exam resulted in grade boundaries moving drastically in 2012, there were those who advocated a huge shift in C grade pass rates. When grades are revalued, the direction is almost always the same: more passes without any underlying improvement in achievement or ability. Recent stability in pass rates is the exception, not the norm. It has only being achieved through a deliberate policy effort to hold the line after years of constant grade inflation. If we discard this policy this year, it will be easier to abandon it in other years too.

Whether or not grading goes well today and next Thursday (and I know some will inevitably lose out compared with exams), we would be fools to give up on maintaining the value of grades.

An additional couple of notes.

Firstly, good luck to all students (and their teachers) getting results today and next week. Secondly, the grade allocation might go completely wrong, but remember, anomalies will be reported from schools even if it goes really well. Don’t jump to conclusions when the first angry school leaders appear on the news or on social media. We won’t know if there’s a problem for certain until somebody checks the maths for those schools, which is easier said than done.

4 comments

  1. What do you think about the international comparison with UK grade inflation? https://chemistryinthecity.neocities.org/content/entry2007.html#10
    The interim report about exams grades this year is quite detailed; your thoughts? 🙂


  2. We all understand the maths of it but to get a statistically accurate model there will be significant individual injustices… I think we can all see as this unfolds that this is far from over.


  3. […] in British schools « Mock results are not a good prediction of final exam grades Grade inflation is not the way to resolve an exam kerfuffle […]


  4. […] There are also concerns about grade inflation and the problems this might have for future […]



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