The topic of grade inflation has become a cumbersome companion to assessment.
Together they lumber awkwardly through the education system in the UK and beyond, threatening to undermine compulsory and higher education alike. True, the average trend is towards increasing grades. This is particularly the case in the upper echelons, where three quarters of students are now reportedly awarded first or upper second class degrees, compared to half this amount 20 years ago.
What’s really going on?
Responses to this trend are typically characterised by a deficit discourse in which blame is appended to a decline in standards, and is labelled as grade inflation. In other words, an increase in grades without a corresponding increase in learning or performance. However, grade inflation is not a foregone conclusion. The need to find out who or what is to blame is a diversion from the development of a better understanding of what the key influences actually are. Whilst assessment results are subjected to a constant barrage of critique, grade inflation is the lazy rhetoric that interferes with the development of this greater understanding of the most influential determinants.
The obvious conclusion to draw is that standards are decreasing and degrees are being devalued. However, the obvious is often built on the unstable foundations of generalisation and a superficial understanding of individual contexts. The obvious clings on to oversimplification and kneejerk reactions. The reality, however, is a far less obvious affair.
Evidence for why grades are trending upwards, or the less loaded phrase of grade improvement, reveal a complex landscape. According to our recent research, the most influential determinants of grade improvement were shown to be the geographic location of an institution, research output quality and the increasing quality of student cohorts – although even this variable was determined on grade entry points, which the recent A Level debacle in the UK has pulled into question.
Structural changes and smarter students
Of course, these are not the only influential factors, with greater expenditure on academic services; the professionalization of teaching in higher education; the move to a modularised system with multiple points of assessment, and; the shift from norm-referenced (i.e. relative) to criterion-referenced (i.e. absolute) measures of performance being evidenced as significant determinants. What this evidence reveals is that a combination of student aptitude, and changes to the structure and quality of UK higher education, appear to be largely accountable for graduates attaining higher grades. It also, importantly, points to the problems associated with our criterion-referenced approaches to assessment being critiqued using a norm-referenced rationale. Evidence, on the other hand, that grade inflation in UK higher education is a significant issue, is far more difficult to ascertain.
Making comparisons even within a particular higher education system, such as the UK, is a complex affair. Different cohort sizes, approaches to assessment, and – indeed – global pandemics will all influence grade outcomes. However, improvements in grades being unexplained by a particular statistical model should not automatically be labelled grade inflation. Indeed, our analysis points to the importance of the local contextual features of each institution, which are rarely considered within existing research.
A question of discipline
The disciplinary diet of institutions, for instance, is likely to have an impact on the overall distribution of grades. History, Languages and Philosophy tend to award consistently higher grades than other disciplines. As a result, those institutions with more of these disciplines will likely have a higher proportion of upper overall degree classifications. What this points to, is the need for individual institution-based case studies. These would enable greater insight into the local contextual variables that are more and less influential in the grade attainment of students. They would allow for the exploration of similarities and differences, and the development of a more nuanced understanding of the factors informing the student experience and grade outcome.
Unfortunately, in the absence of this more nuanced understanding of the influence of local contexts to illuminate the determinants of grade improvements, the rhetoric of grade inflation is being left to wreak havoc. For example, further erosion of institutional autonomy with increasing governmental control is being threatened. Suggested penalties for grade inflation include the levying of fines up to 2 per cent of an institution’s income, the imposition of conditions on institutional registration, and the removal of degree awarding powers.
These externally enforced potential “fixes” are proposed by government ministers who have little understanding of how the higher education system works beyond obtaining an undergraduate degree and/or sitting on a select committee. They are unhelpful and damaging to a sector-owned and led response, and ignore the context bound nature of assessment that is enacted within and by the communities of practice in which it takes place.
A more meaningful perspective is that the variables consolidated within a variety of statistical models highlight a much more positive and proactive picture of a higher education system that is engaged in a process of continuous enhancement. Externally imposed ‘fixes’ are not the answer and will lead to the artificial distortion of grade distributions that will do more harm than good. As the foundation of our higher education qualifications we have a professional responsibility to engage with a sector developed and implemented means of explaining the unexplained variables associated with grade improvement. It is time that we subject the deficit discourse of grade inflation to the same level of critique that it is subjecting our academic standards to.