Sunday, 12 August 2012

The unpleasant myth of grade inflation

We are coming to the time for an annual ritual to be played out in England and Wales: just as thousands of nervous teenagers are opening envelopes containing their exam results, politicians and the tabloid press compete with each other to denigrate those students' achievement in ever more strident terms, bemoaning the appalling decline in standards exemplified by the despicable phenomenon of grade inflation. This year, allegedly, it will be different, because the lovely Mr Gove has trumped everyone by issuing an edict that over-performance will be eradicated by norm-referencing the A level results (just like the old days), to ensure that no more students achieve the top grades than did last year. The exams are of course criterion-referenced these days, setting a carefully thought-through benchmark for each grade, but that is not good enough for Mr Gove, because it leads to grade inflation and that,as we are incessantly told, is a bad thing. Essentially an analogy for what he has done would be for a driver to take the driving test only to be told that, whilst they drove extremely well, too many other drivers had already passed their driving test this month, so they would be failed.

So what does grade inflation mean, and does it exist? Well, it depends how you look at it. Without question far larger numbers of students achieve high grades than used to be the case and the proportion doing so has increased steadily for decades. It is unlikely that today's students are significantly cleverer (or stupider, come to that) than previous generations, so it would appear reasonable to assume that the exams have got easier. This assumption is particularly easy for those in their middle years to swallow, since it chimes with their heartfelt belief that the exams they did must have been harder than any that are done these days. Seeking to justify that view, some look at contemporary exam papers set for 16-year-olds and find that, astonishingly, they can do them EASILY! It does not appear to occur to some that they may possibly have acquired some skills and knowledge in the decades since they were 16 themselves so the comparison is not a fair one. Many may also over-estimate their ability to answer the exam questions well enough to achieve a good grade. The best exam questions are open-ended and often deceptively simple at first glance.

Other more apparently rigorous studies have given contemporary 16-year-olds 1950s O-level papers to sit and found that they COULD NOT DO THEM! See- grade inflation. And it's a bad thing. Of course this is hardly a fair test either. How could a 16-year-old possibly expect to do well at an exam paper for which they have not been prepared, covering areas of the curriculum they have no knowledge of and testing skills (like fact regurgitation) that they have never practised? How well do you think 1950s 16-year-olds would have done with a 21st Century exam paper?

So any direct comparison of contemporary and historical exams is problematic. For what it is worth, my own experience would not tend to suggest that  21st Century exam papers are less challenging. I was one of those who did extremely well under the old exams (from back in the days when they were PROPER EXAMS). I have also taught contemporary teenagers and helped them prepare for today's exams. It is hard to remember with any certainty, but I am sure that in English Literature for instance, whilst I knew large sections of the texts I had to study off by heart, my understanding of any of them was really pretty superficial, and well below what I would expect from the top students these days.

But grade inflation still exists, surely. Just look at the numbers: it must exist.

Well yes, but only in the same way that age inflation exists. Life expectancy in this country is another thing that has increased steadily over many decades, yet I can't remember the last time anyone bemoaned the phenomenon of age inflation. I don't remember hearing Tory MPs demanding that years be made longer to stamp out the evils of age inflation. No. everyone accepts without question that increased life expectancy is a benign outcome of improved nutrition, housing, sanitation and healthcare.

Or to take a more topical example: athletic performance. It is not only that world records are on a consistent downward trend- more and more athletes are achieving benchmarks once seen as the pinnacle of human ability. Roger Bannister's four-minute mark for the mile has been achieved by athletes aged 16 and 42 and in the recent Olympics 100m final all eight runners would have broken the once unimaginable 10-second mark had Asafa Powell not pulled up injured.

So there you go, speed inflation too. Yet I don't hear calls for the 100 metres to be lengthened. Why not? Because everyone accepts that modern athletes perform better because they are far, far better prepared. Their fitness, training, nutrition, psychology and equipment are all much better and so they run faster.

So to return to the issue of grade inflation. I would argue very strongly indeed that the reason more students achieve the higher grades these days is simple: they are better prepared for the exams. In my day one had very little idea prior to the exam what one was really being tested on or how one's success (or otherwise) would be judged. Exam preparation (from memory) amounted to revising lists of dates/ quotations/ formulae/ molecular weights and trying to work out what the questions were going to be.

Contemporary students in every bog-standard comprehensive in the land are infinitely better prepared than that. Everything possible is done to ensure that they understand the actual criteria for success. They will have self-assessed and peer-assessed trial exam papers, using the published grade criteria, so that they have a precise understanding of what makes the difference between a C and a D or an A and an A* (in my day, I had not the faintest clue, by the way). They will have looked at exemplar answers, not to learn and copy them (these days that would get you nowhere, though again, in my day...) but to help them understand what makes for an effective answer to a particular question. They will have been given (or will have bought) revision materials of a quality and scope unheard of in my day. They will have benefited from revision timetables, revision classes and probably Easter holiday revision schools too. All that on top of a quality of teaching across their school career far in excess of anything I received. I was in a grammar school and then a prestigious Oxbridge-feeding direct grant school but distinctly remember teachers falling asleep at their desks, handing out sheets of maths problems and then sitting back to read the newspaper, or regaling us with incessant stories of their wartime escapades. I have never, in 25 years in inner London comprehensives, seen that degree of laxity. So yes, students nowadays will have benefited throughout their school careers from afar higher quality of teaching than used to be the case.

All of this is analogous to the sort of careful preparation we have been hearing about over the last few days of the London Olympics. Contemporary students may not be quite as scientifically pepared for their event as the GB cycling team, because not every teacher is a Dave Brailsford,  but they are certainly a hell of a lot better prepared than I and my generation were. There are those of course who see this as somehow cheating (Mr Gove being clearly one of them). Students shouldn't be so carefully prepared. Exams should test their native wit and intelligence (whatever they are) and teachers who attend training courses run by exam boards are despicable cads. So presumably, although every aspect of a school's success is now utterly dependent on its students' success in exams, schools and teachers should return to the laissez-faire attitudes of my (and my generation's) teachers, most of whom clearly had a very hazy notion indeed of how to prepare their students effectively for the exams they would be sitting. Because of course in those days it really didn't matter. The tyranny of the league table had not been dreamt up, and if lots of students failed, well there were jobs for them in the factories/ docks/  mines/ shops (delete as appropriate) and frankly, it was probably the best place for them.

So please, stop pretending that grade inflation means that the exams we took were much, much harder than those today's students take. By all means introduce improved discrimination at the top end, to distinguish between those whose performance is, by historical standards, exemplary. Speculate if you wish on how well you or your generation would have done in your exams had you been as well prepared as today's youngsters are- it's like wondering what sort of time Roger Bannister or Jesse Owens would have been capable of had they benefited from modern training and nutrition regimes and been running on modern tracks with modern footwear. But don't denigrate the performance of today's youngsters. Those who succeed will have worked hard for their success. Probably much harder than you ever did.


  1. Throughly agree with every word

  2. Excellent article - thank goodness Gove has not managed to impose norm referenced results in Scotland.