Friday, October 17, 2014

Grade Inflation at Third-Level #MyTwoCents

Why is it that if students work harder and get better grades that the media latch on to the "grade inflation" bandwagon? This week the Irish Times blasts that "DCU, UCC award more ‘firsts’ in new indicator of grade inflation" and that some students "have a much higher chance of graduating with a first class honours degree than other college-goers" and that new figures are a "fresh indicator" of “grade inflation”. There is no reason why the figures quoted, such as "between 2004 and 2013, an average of 71.7 per cent of students at TCD graduated with either a 1st or a 2.1" are much different in other third-level Colleges such as the ITs and NCI.

Normal Distribution.
Image Source: Wikipedia.
I would be interested to see what the overall distribution of grades by actual mark is. We don't mark to a bell curve - not allowed to. For example, a "First" is an average grade of 70% or over - if you get 71% or 99% it is still a First. Data like these are usually normally distributed, but the Irish Times omits reference to this or the variation. The Times does quote a source from Trinity that it attracted “exceptionally bright cohorts of students”. This is most likely as a consequence of rising CAO points at the entry level. If you have a course, such as Science in Trinity where points have been rising steadily for years, the calibre of students entering is getting stronger. See below a table of the points required for Science (I don't know what the grades are for this course) in Trinity since 2008 (source

2008415 points
2009440 points
2010 455 points
2011 470 points
2012 500 points
2013 505 points
2014 515 points

The number of points needed has increased by a whopping 100 in six years, but the degree course is most likely substantially the same. Is it any wonder students will do better? Should Colleges start to mark harder, set tougher tests, or not let the bell curve move in order to avoid accusations of grade inflation? 

Today's students are also a lot smarter when it comes to assessments and exams - they can cram a lot better than any student from the past, and with a lot more continuous assessment about - there are more opportunities for getting better grades. Many recruiters require at least a 2:1, so guess what? Students respond to these needs. Students don't get better results without working for them - if they get a First, then award a First!

1 comment:

  1. One could also make the point that the market will find people out in any case. The big test is what and where are people progressing to after the completion of formal education...