Mar 10, 2010

Too easy to blame "dumbing-down" for grade inflation

The recent debate around grade inflation in the second and tertiary levels is a complex issue that can be all too easily blamed on the “dumbing-down” of curricula. At the Leaving Certificate level students have become much more precise and focused in their studies, learning to take exams and answer standardised questions rather than learning to solve problems or think critically. 

The issue at second level of grade inflation is in part explained by the mechanism in which material is examined and not just the standard of the material or the curriculum. The proof is in the sudden prominence of grind schools in recent years. If not you I am sure that you know at least one friends that got grinds in some subject, usually mathematics or a language.

It is hard to blame students who are in competition for third level places and it is just as difficult to blame teachers who are under pressure from students and their parents to teach in a way that maximises performance at the Leaving Certificate exams. College admissions are entirely based upon this inadequate metric. Methods used to improve and broaden assessment at entrance to courses such as the implementation of the HPAT for medicine have essentially failed in what they are intended to do. 


However, a radical overhaul of the Leaving Certificate isn’t on the cards and isn’t necessarily the correct thing to do. That examination is set to cater for students of all academic standards and creating an examination that searches for one’s ability to solve problems or think critically wouldn’t play to everyones strengths. These are qualities that we look for in potential third level students but the Leaving Certificate isn’t there just for them. 

It is expected nowadays that nearly everyone should have completed the Leaving Certificate regardless of their future plans. One way to address this might be to have our third level institutions assess students in other ways such as an entrance examination or conduct interviews. This of course, would cost a lot and there would be little political will to shake things up so much. Right now national attention is directed at the third level when there are so many problems at second level.

At third level the situation is even more complicated and is exacerbated by the problems at second level. We hear anecdotal evidence from lecturers suggesting that students know less on arrival at college, especially in mathematics. It seems to be an operational fact that first year courses in particular have to be “dumbed-down” over time as a result. Though this may not be palatable to everyone, the voices of academics who insist on this are numerous.

However, the increase in students getting high grades cannot be attributed entirely to this. Trinity College’s Academic Secretary Patricia Callaghan reported that part of the reason for it’s grade inflation is due to “improved teaching and learning, and more transparent assessment regulations” and she is undoubtedly right that these are factors. Speaking as a student representative I can attest that there is also an increased awareness among the student population of appeals processes and the number of appeals in Trinity has risen in recent years. 

Another factor not explored fully by the Trinity report is the push to increase student numbers and the unwavering focus on the desire to rise on the international ranking scales. Both of these actions taken by the universities are linked to funding of the higher education sector. To rise in the rankings means you attract more international students, which acts as a positive feedback loop, as an institution needs many international students to rank highly. International students bring in revenue in extravagant fees and the increase in the size of the student body means an increase in the college core grant from the HEA. Another issue is the prominence of research over teaching. 

Research is an alternative source of revenue which when invested in can bring great dividends. I’m never really surprised when I see College acting in a way that negatively impacts on the quality of undergraduate teaching. Their funding from the government isn’t based on how much the college shape their graduates into well rounded, intelligent and scholarly individuals. It’s based on how many students you have. 

Many opinion pieces have recently criticised the universities for “dumbing down” their courses. Can you blame them? In a dog eat dog environment where you have to continuously compete for numbers of students and for research grants from a very small pot of money it’s no wonder that priorities get skewed. There are many College officers who slave away to the best of their ability to ensure that the quality of education is the best it can be in the funding environment we find ourselves in, but unfortunately it’s not enough. To tackle the problem of grade inflation we need to let our universities focus on the quality and standard of education and teaching as their top priority. They can’t do that at the moment. Next year’s income and where it’s coming from is the question on their minds.

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