Secondary Secondary Science

In praise of grade inflation

Well if there’s a term that lots of people not directly involved with education have got used to this summer it’s ‘grade inflation’. To those of us in the trade this debate has an interesting feel to it. We’ve grown very used to a gentle year on year rise in the percentages of students being awarded, for example, A*-C grades. Talking to teachers, attitudes regarding this vary from the warm glow that comes from things getting better to a mild cynicism and wry smile. Of course they’ve risen.

Let me say straight away that I firmly believe that the quality of science education is improving – I spend too much time in classrooms to think otherwise. Lessons are better now than they were a few years ago; this was echoed by Ofsted’s triennial review of science education last year. However there are genuine worries about grade inflation, and rightly so. If a C grade becomes easier to get then it devalues it. There are proud proclamations that standards should be maintained. Well, I’ve never heard a convincing argument to the contrary.

However it’s not an ‘either – or’ question; it’s quite conceivable to simultaneously have rising standards and grade inflation at the same time. It’s interesting to consider what the way forward is though.

Grade inflation could be abolished by setting quotas. It could be determined, for example, that no more than 10% of entrants should get As or A*s (for example in Additional Science this year it was 13.3%). However, such a system could be quite corrosive. Schools are aspirational – and should be. They exist to increase students’ life chances. There’s something powerful about being able to say to a student currently on track for a D that they could get a C (or, of course, from an A to an A*). With grade quotas every D to C success story would be mirrored by a C to D slip. It wouldn’t matter how much teaching and learning improved overall. Your school only improves if another one trips up.

Here’s an idea: grade inflation should be allowed, in moderation, if it’s supported by evidence of overall improvements in standards. If inspectors and international comparisons show that learning in science is more effective, then that should result in more students getting better grades. Why shouldn’t it? It’s like economic inflation – an excess is dangerous but genuine growth should benefit all.

Ed Walsh,

September 2012.

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