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August 14, 2008

Of Saints and Examinees: Jeremy Black on grade inflation

Posted by Jeremy Black

The issue of grade inflation is rather more complex than it is often presented - argues Jeremy Black, Professor of History at the University of Exeter.

All too many are passing. All too many are getting in. Standards have collapsed. I refer, of course, not to the usual response to exam results, but to the astonishing expansion of the saintly throng under the last pontiff. Not restricted to British saints of course, so scarcely a subject for the media, but John Paul II's wholesale promotion was far more a case of standards changing than that of exam results.

A levels are not my field. If many students today seem to have a less secure field of British culture - try making reference to the plot of Dickens' novels - that is possibly primarily a matter of a general shift in society before which the education system can do little. To achieve 3 or 4 grade As at A level is still a considerable achievement, and if the numbers of those in this category have risen, then, again, this reflects social changes with more pupils proceeding to this stage. As the greater number would include pupils with the ability to do well but who previously lacked or did not take the opportunity to proceed to A level, then a larger number is to be anticipated.

A similar point can be made about university. Factors as varied as war, social circumstances and family dynamics ensured that many did not go to university who were bright enough not only to do so, but also to obtain very good grades. This, for example, was the case for my parents and my sister, and I am sure that it was also true for the parents of some readers of this piece.

An important shift over the last seventy years is that toward a higher participation ratio in higher education for women, as marriage is postponed. Again, this would affect the results.

Have good grades in university exams become easier? I cannot comment on mathematics and the sciences, but can make some suggestions for the Arts based on discussion with others and personal experience: professor at Durham and Exeter, external examiner at Anglia, Bristol, Newcastle, Northumbria, Southampton and Sunderland. The key point is that whereas I do see a greater reluctance to award lower grades, I do not see a comparable willingness to award firsts. Thus, rather than a general rise, there is a bulging of marks, with the 2:1 becoming the grade of preference. If criticism is due, it should focus on that. 90% of the mark-scale is under-employed. That again, however, is an aspect of a society in which fear of litigation and the impact of social mores combine to make (exceptional) merit or poor performance appear less possible than a general sameness. Universities may be part of the problem, but they are not responsible for it.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (2007), A Short History of Britain (2007), The Holocaust (2008), and The Curse of History (2008).

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