Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What’s the point of grades?

We need to rethink exam results as indicators of personal achievement

Yesterday, 45 per cent of UK A-level results were A/A*. From the 1960s to 1990, it was roughly 8-10 per cent, but then rose to 26 per cent by 2010. Grade inflation in A-levels (unlike university assessments) was then brought under control until 2019. So now we must have a national conversation about grade inflation in both schools and universities. Will we talk mainly about proportions and targets and their administrative consequences? Or should we also discuss the happiness implications?  

In researching happiness, in any moral debate I look for signs of interest in human flourishing and motivation. Does schooling foster happiness? Happiness is about living well — enjoying life, and doing well. In a measurement-obsessed culture, doing well means scoring well. Teachers and pupils set their sights on getting a good score. Not everyone can be excellent, but a good school and a good society should want everyone to be motivated to flourish. 

If assessment (a complex, mainly qualitative matter) gets confused with measurement (a simplified quantification), measures take on a life of their own. People forget that they are only proxy indicators for doing well. This criticism has long been made of school assessments. Parents want schooling to make children happy, yet pupils and schools are mainly assessed numerically, by academic scores. Grade inflation becomes inevitable if everyone is also told to aim for A grades.

It would be naïve or disingenuous to see these results simply as good news

This is why no-one should underestimate the social significance of rapid changes in academic grading systems. In 2003, the birth year of many of this year’s UK school leavers, the UK Department for Education and Skills published its new strategy for primary schools: Excellence and Enjoyment. Despite this rhetorical pointer towards schooling for happiness, UK school and pupil assessments have remained stubbornly dominated by academic test scores. 

But wait: what does “excellence” mean, and why should we aim for it? Traditionally, a strong indicator of excellence in both school and university performance was getting an A grade. Yesterday, the proportion of A/A* grades was nearly double the proportion in the pre-pandemic, exam-based results of 2019. Whether you call this “grade inflation” or “performance improvement”, the awkward truth is that these 2021 numbers refer to an entirely different, non-exam assessment process. Maybe these new assessments hint at a different scale and variety of academic flourishing that exam scores failed to reveal. Either way, we must all adjust our ways of interpreting this cohort’s academic performance. 

For lots of people, these results are a well-earned cause for celebration — a triumph of personal and collective resilience through a couple of horrendously disrupted years. It’s heartening to learn that so many pupils have avoided pandemic-induced despair and completed their studies successfully. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, insists that students “deserve to be rewarded” in this way, and who would deny individuals, parents, and schools that collective pat on the back?

It would, however, be naïve or disingenuous to see these results simply as good news. Slow and steady grade inflation in previous decades had caused nagging worries and had been widely debated. But the system still worked, and integrated well with the increasing availability of university places. It just meant that by 2010 an A grade had become, in some sense, analogous to a B grade in 1990, and the new classification A* became the new A, i.e. the new target for those wanting to be “excellent”. These stark pandemic-induced changes pose much more disruptive challenges to the whole idea of basing higher education admissions systems and employment prospects on school exam results.

Before 1990, when only 8 to 10 per cent got A grades at A-level, fewer than 15 per cent of school leavers proceeded to higher education. Within a generation, we have seen a fivefold increase in the proportion getting top grades, but also a threefold increase in those attending higher education. Neither A grades, nor higher education, can now function as the sorting mechanism they once were.

The longer-term grade inflation may be due to actual improvements in ability

Like a “first class” in the university grading system, an A at A-level used to be a clear indication of exceptional performance. While an A grade may still indicate very good performance, it is not logical to claim that nearly half of the candidates were “exceptional”. The same has become true of grades on most university degrees, with the proportion of firsts on many programmes rising from 5-10 per cent in the 1980s to 40-60 per cent today. This “grade inflation/performance improvement” has been especially stark on programmes where performance is assessed subjectively using qualitative criteria, and with more emphasis on coursework than exams.

Do we want to mark out a minority of performers as excellent? If so, is this needed more for some subjects than others? And do we want to encourage everyone to strive for this kind of excellence even though by definition only a small minority can achieve it? 

Will we agree to award A* to 5 per cent, A to 10 per cent of pupils each year? Or will we look for other, perhaps more varied and qualitative indicators of exceptional ability and performance? If we choose the latter, there will be — interesting but Herculean — tasks for higher education’s admissions teams to select students on varied and more uncertain indicators of ability and potential.

If you have long been uneasy about the overemphasis on school exam performance you may see this year’s grading debacle as a welcome chance to bring in fairer, more comprehensive assessment regimes. In the post-pandemic reset, we have a chance to radically rethink the educational purposes, means, and outcomes of academic grading. Spectacular grade inflation will make it harder to give teachers and pupils a confident sense of what they ought to be aiming to achieve in coming years. But it also raises possibilities for thinking in more sophisticated and practical ways about the assessment of personal and collective progress.

Some of the longer-term grade inflation may be due to actual improvements in ability and performance. IQ has been rising worldwide for the past century, and hopefully school quality, information flows, and pupil engagement have been improving too. We can celebrate those improvements without denying that changes in measured performance change the pattern of academic incentives. Grade inflation has been much more stark in subject areas that rely mainly on qualitative and subjective assessments. 

This trend is, at least in the short term, very likely influencing students’ preferences for university courses, causing rising demand for humanities and social subjects and a decline in applications for sciences and quantitative disciplines.

Perhaps we can also agree that this is a good time to rethink the salience of exam-based scores as motivational targets and as indicators of personal achievement. In view of rampant grade inflation, why not challenge students (and teachers, parents, and employers) to consider whether and why they attach importance to academic grades — both in schools and in universities? Maybe we should all shift some of our attention towards the intrinsic value of education. 

If we agree that education mustn’t be reduced to a sorting mechanism, we should also want students to be interested and gleefully engaged in the joys of sharing curiosities and learning in the company of others. And insofar as education is still valued as a means to other ends, this is also a chance to see the limitations of exam grades as indicators of progress towards the various life skills that schooling is meant to provide.

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