A timely new research summary from QAA attempts to put our ongoing moral panic over grade inflation into global perspective.
If you want an overview of the way the issue is framed in England, there was an OfS briefing released last week that hits most of the key notes. A UKSCQA “Statement of Intent” outlines the response of universities.
Is this an international issue?
The accusations of “soft marking”, “inflated norms”, and – in tension with this – “marking on a curve” has led to benchmarking upwards around the world. Outside England, the trend is generally ascribed to corporate rather than academic judgements having an undue impact on assessment – an issue of “corruption” in the words of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA also notes issues like “unfair practices in appointment of officials (eg through nepotism or favour)” and “political or commercial interference in regulatory decisions” as other areas of concern globally – which is a mood).
However, published evidence internationally pours cold water on the “more effective students” hypothesis. There’s evidence that students are choosing less challenging assessment methods, choosing courses with reputations for higher grades (this would be courses in the US/global sense, we would say “modules” in the UK), and are complaining when they don’t get the grades they feel they deserve. Students are spending less time on their studies, standardised test performance (in Turkey and the US) has remained stable or decline, and growth in student numbers generally means less spending on teaching and support per students.
QAA also identify a Hungarian study that finds that grades have an impact on student evaluations of teaching – recommending that surveys take place before marks are known.
What’s being done about it?
The UK statement of intent is globally unique. Elsewhere approaches involve accreditation reviews, the introduction of externality (such as the UK external examiner system) to assessment and calibration, and improvements to audit and monitoring. There’s little evidence of direct quality assurance interventions in the problem – either by individual agencies or trans-national organisations.
When individual institutions have taken unilateral measures to limit the use of higher grades, there have been notable climb-downs when results have disappointed students. A fascinating paper documents how this played out when Princeton University and Wellesley College experimented with institutional quotas. Despite the existence of grade inflation concerns in the US, other national systems (including the Netherlands and Malaysia) are interested in moving to US-style approaches like ranks, percentiles, and median grades.
This is a research review rather than a policy intervention, but we do get a series of possibilities for future action. Many of these suggest further research – improving evidence and analysis, further tracing of the impact of policy interventions, and the development of national guidance and support.
What’s notable looking at international work is how rarely academic judgement – rather than institutional policy – is blamed for an “unexplained” issue in student attainment. The shift towards beefing up external examiner processes globally (and I understand there may be a QAA report on practice in the UK on the way) points to a need to reinforce and support academic judgement rather than algorithms.
There does need to be room to identify and reward excellent student performance with a grade that reflects the quality of work rather than the position of a student on a curve of their peers. Quite how we get there remains to be seen.