Universities demand end to artificial grade inflation
The exam is predominantly written and is taken at the end of secondary schooling and is used by universities to select students for entry.
Their plea follows a third year of inflated grades. The exam was cancelled in 2020 because of COVID-19 and calculated grades were used instead. In 2021 students had the option of receiving accredited grades which were based on teachers’ or schools’ estimated marks, sitting the exam or both.
This year all students sat the exam which was marked in the traditional way. But their marks were then adjusted upwards to bring them into line with last year’s record set of high grades. This ‘post-mark intervention’ meant that the results were artificially inflated by an average of 5.6%.
The upgrading was ordered by the Education Minister Norma Foley who said students had been very clear that they should receive results on par with the previous year in the interests of fairness.
Otherwise they would be competing with candidates from the previous two years who had benefited from inflated grades and who had re-applied for university places.
But the use of inflated grades again this year meant high entry requirements for many university courses where selection is on the basis of supply and demand. Places on some high demand courses had to be offered on random selection, in effect a lottery system.
Universities want ability to differentiate
The universities say their ability to differentiate between very good and excellent applicants is important and should not be lost.
“If grade inflation is raising all boats, then the top students can’t go any further. We were conscious last year that there were some really good students who were worthy of a place,” University of Galway President Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh remarked.
Inflated grades do not give students a true sense of their ability. They lead to the ‘Lake Wobegon’ effect – called after the fictitious town created by the writer Garrison Keillor – where all the children are ‘above average’, say the universities.
They point to lower achieving students suddenly being able to get into courses that might otherwise have been out of reach but where they are now struggling. There are indications that the dropout rate has increased on some courses.
The minister said last week she wants to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ fall in grades for the class of 2023. Students will again be offered more choice in exam questions, they will have to answer fewer questions and will be given more time to answer them. This is in recognition of the fact that they, too, have experienced “challenges” over the past few years, she said.
However, she has yet to give a timetable for a return to normal grades. Too quick and there will be complaints from the class of 2023 that they are competing for university places with applicants from previous years with record grades. Too slow and the distorting effects of inflated grades will be felt for years to come.