Ben Lowry: Exam grade inflation is rooted in sentimentality about education and school pupils

A Levels were introduced in the 1950s.

Saturday, 14th August 2021, 1:01 pm
Updated Saturday, 14th August 2021, 3:14 pm
An system that was rigorous and impersonal, in which a marker marked a script by a student whom they did not know, has been replaced by one in which a pupil is asssessed by a teacher they know

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.

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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

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Ben Lowry

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