I read with interest today reports (see RTÉ report - Initial 'grade inflation' findings published) concerning an analysis of grades awarded in higher education institutions. The report shows that first-class honours awarded to students in the Institute of Technology sector increased from 11% to 16.6% between 1998 and 2008 and that in the universities the percentage of first-class awards increased from 8.3 to 16.2% over a similar period.
This has been a phenomenon for several years (there's is even a website dedicated to this in Ireland!) and is a cause of debate internationally, with many people claiming that "in the good old days" it was almost impossible to get a First. I recall that in my own graduation class (1983) there were three Firsts out of about 18 students - the first Firsts for several years. The following year there were SIX Firsts out of a class of 22. Both sets of results were greeted with a degree of astonishment (and no doubt some joy by the students themselves) - it was a big talking point for some time. How could there be that many smart people in one class?
My own view is that if a student achieves an overall mark of 70% or more that they are entitled to be awarded a First - regardless of how others performed in a class. I don't believe in throwing a bell curve over a set of results and then deciding that only 5% of a class can get a First. When I am marking any piece of assessment, one of the first questions I ask myself is "Is this a first-class piece of work?" If it is, I'll award an appropriate mark, if not - I don't. However, I do believe that 70% is too low a mark to be the cut-off point for First class honours. There is a huge gulf between 70% and 90% - but both marks will deliver a First. To get an "A" in the Leaving Certificate you need to score at least 85%, while 70% is a low "B" (B3). A B3 can hardly be described as First Class? A re-alignment of the grading system might be in order - What....change hundreds of years of distinguishing people by whether they graduated with a First or Upper Second I hear you say? (BTW - I'm a 2:1!).
Image copied from Karl Kapp's Blog - Kapp Notes, a must read blog for educators worth checking out.