“Grade Inflation” Getting Everything Wrong

This is a really important issue for Ireland and for everyone in the education sector.  It is vital that get a clear understanding of what the problem is and what we need to do to rectify it.

First of all, the problem we need to solve is not “Grade Inflation” and it would be a huge mistake if we were all to get in a muddle comparing the numbers of first class honours’ degrees or 600 point Leaving Certs in the past few years.

Just like all measures based on our social circumstances, such as the spending power of the average weekly wage or the average life-expectancy, over time we should expect to see a gradual improvement in similar measures of quality and achievement in our education system.

Today, we are educating more people to a higher standard than ever before and I will be surprised if the emperical evidence from the soon-to-be released study will not show this to be the case.

But I do not believe we should be congratulating ourselves – there is a problem and a new challenge and we need to get to the heart of it.

Let me use one source Dr Craig Barrett, former CEO and Chairman of Intel and a frequent visitor to Ireland:

 “Your primary and secondary schools are only average,” he said. “It is no longer good enough to be average. You have to be excellent at what you do … at the end of secondary school your young people are average. Your education system is being challenged by improvements in the rest of the world. Things have changed, the educational attainment of other countries have been increasing, and that increases competition for attracting investment.”Source: http://www.examiner.ie/opinion/columnists/matt-cooper/for-ireland-to-make-the-grade-we-need-radical-education-reform-111903.html#ixzz0h0o2hsCx

Barrett is providing us with a global perspective and he, rightly in my opinion, points to the progress made by other countries.  Later in the same interview Barrett lays down the challenge:

“It is possible for Ireland to continue to be successful, but you have to worry about the capability of your workforce and what it does,” he said. “Why not a race to the top? Why not have more capability and jobs where you can add value? Increased capability and education is where you increase value.”

Now, let me make plea: let’s not get ourselves in a flap over grade inflation or comparisons between institutions.  Let’s talk about what really matters – quality of teaching and quality of assessment.

It is a not sufficient for the Department of Education and Science to look to the State Exams Commission (note “exams” not “assessment”) to produce year-on-year comparisons of Leaving Cert grades – why don’t we look at what the Leaving Cert is really measuring – mostly memory, recall and strategic learning.  Genuine problem-solving and creative thinking are not nurtured and not sufficiently recognised.

Similarly, in third level we are certainly guilty of over rewarding students who do not ask questions, suggest alternatives, write critically or challenge the norms of society.

This is the real threat!  In short, it’s not that we are giving too many high grades in exams, it’s that we are not measuring what we should be measuring.

Certain skills are more important for competitive and connected workplaces – these include inquiry, problem solving, technical and scientific skills, critical thinking, research, collaboration, presentation and good writing.
These skills need to be nurtured and measured at all levels of education.  This is the real challenge.

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