Ben Lowry: Exam grade inflation is rooted in sentimentality about education and school pupils
A Levels were introduced in the 1950s.
For much of that time, from the 60s to the 80s, the percentage of people getting each grade was fixed.
The best 10% got an A grade, the next 15% got a B grade, and so on, with the bottom 10% failing.
This was in a way unfair. It meant that an exam candidate who might ordinarily get an A grade might not do so in a much better than average year of students, because their score would not put them in the top tenth.
But in many respects it was a fair system, because most years exam groups average out about the same.
A cohort of all A Level students in Northern Ireland or of all A Level students in England is a very large group of people, and so overall results are all the more likely to ‘regress towards the overall mean’.
In simple terms, it is quite reasonable to think in terms of good years or bad years if you are talking about annual classes of 25 people, but it is not so plausible when you are talking about years of hundred of thousands of people.
In terms of ability, the entire group of Northern Ireland A Level students of 1971 will be roughly the same as A Level students of 2021.
When the system of fixed percentages of grades was abolished in the 1980s, it led to a long, slow period of grade inflation.
In 1989, 11% of A Level students in the UK got an A grade.
Twenty years later, in 2009, almost 27% of pupils did so.
The top grade had been rendered almost meaningless, and the following year an A* was introduced. It was achieved by 8% of students in 2010. Gradually though, the A* grade has itself become undermined by grade inflation and this has been greatly accelerated by the method of marking chosen as a response to lockdown: teacher assessment.
Now in Northern Ireland almost 20% of pupils get an A* and this year more than half got an A* or A grade.
Frankly, who is surprised by this?
Who is surprised that a system that was controlled and impersonal, in which a marker marked a script by a student whom they did not know, would be undermined by a system in which a teacher marks the child they do know?
It was always going to lead not only to grade inflation but another problem that almost no-one will admit: that traditional, rigorous teachers will sometimes be harsher and more honest in their assessment than less traditional teachers, who empathise with their pupil and want to give a helping hand.
I know of more than one family who feel that their child has suffered by going to a very good school, where pupils were not marked up, but whose scores have been diminished by pupils in schools whose scores have been marked up.
We will never be able to prove that such a thing has happened and many people will be outraged at the mere suggestion of it.
The only injustice that they can countenance is one of ‘privilege’.
Increasingly the rhetoric around education is sentimentalised.
Last year I wrote of my fear that Covid would be used as a way to undermine grammar schools. That was before academic selection was abolished for this year.
The idea that some children are more suited to an academic environment than others, as is so obviously the case, is increasingly alien to a woke culture.
The idea that some children are positively keen to sit a transfer test was barely heard in the rush to scrap the tests. Instead, we were told of the ‘psychological damage’ to children from the process.
One politician accused the education minister of putting lives at risk for pressing ahead with tests, when in fact the Covid risk to children is minimal.
Sentimentality about children is often incoherent and hypocritical.
Every single person who is facing brain surgery will have no objection to the idea that the person carrying out the operation is from the very brightest group of medical students and is the product of pure elitism in their education. In fact they will demand nothing less.
And try introducing all ability into sport — say telling Manchester United that it will have to take a player on some token grounds, unrelated to their ability to kick a ball.
I think grade inflation is in fact a wider reflection of the increasing weakness of western culture — something I mention below about Afghanistan too.
Think of our competitors — the Chinese, when it comes to for example maths, have no qualms about recognising and promoting the excellence of the brightest pupils.
• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry Aug 9: Covid has been a bewildering and humbling pandemic
• Ben Lowry Aug 9: Now I understand those older people who want cooler summer weather
• Ben Lowry Aug 2: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol
• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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