Grade inflation

By Thursday, October 16, 2014 No tags 0

The following brief note is basically just a rant about what has become one of my favorite whipping horses over the past year or so. Thus, don’t figure on learning anything as I’m just blowing off steam. It’s cheaper than therapy.

 

Every school has its culture and this is accentuated in international schools – where, let’s be honest, ‘international’ for the most part means English or American. I’ve worked in both and each has it’s own set of, shall we say, challenges, in terms of what spits out at the other end of the grade system to be entered into official report cards once teachers have entered proper IB grades. (My more cynical colleagues in the business would quickly translate this as ‘stupidities’ and ‘Random Grade Generator’.) One of the things I have noticed is a strong preponderance towards grade inflation and I increasingly wonder if it’s systemic or strategic. Or both, as is so often the case.

Let’s start with the systemic question. How many of you IB teachers have noticed that the grades you pump into the system somehow spit out an average that is higher than what you see in your own Excel document? I have often noticed that if one uses IB grades (round peg) in one’s own documentation but which then go into a grade system based on A-B-C-D-E-F grades (square hole), the end result is frequently a grade average higher than the IB grades would render. For example, assuming that an IB grade 7 = A+, 6 = A-…etc, I often see that the aggregated average of weighted grades in a school grade system will almost always be higher than my own final averages. I notice this particularly when I ‘translate’ letter grades back into IB grades for comparison.

In several schools I asked the systems manager for the grade algorithm used in the system to convert IB grades into UK or US grades. Yeah, you guessed it; never got to see it. Ever. That is why I have always wondered, in a rather ‘Area 51’ kind of manner, if the system is simply stacked in favour of inflating grades. This came to a head – rather it came to the head’s attention – in one notorious incident where the grade showing up on a report card was considerably higher than the grade I had in my own grade system. In a heated debate with the then head I tried, in my usual low-keyed and discreet manner laced with humility, that in terms of economics grades there was myself…and god. Since god doesn’t exist, well, that kind of narrows it down some. You can imagine how popular this quote became at the top of the school food chain!

In any case, this systemic form of inflation overlaps with what I strongly suspect is quite common in schools; grade inflation due to strategic considerations. This is most discernible in schools where a large proportion of students go to universities that accept students based on internal school grades (e.g. grade transcripts or reports) rather than final IB exam grades. The reasoning is as simple as it is disturbing; it’s a version of the tragedy of the commons. Teacher have a strong incentive to pump up grades in the knowledge that if they don’t, somebody else will. Thus there are two forces working in the same direction: 1) teachers don’t want to look inept in front of grade-inflating colleagues, and; 2) teachers don’t want to disadvantage their own kids in the heated university admittance rounds.

Having had this somewhat high-pitched debate for a number of years now, I simply make sure that students, heads and parents are well aware of how I set IB grades and what system of weights are to be used in the conversion scale. What I hadn’t quite prepared for recently was the effect Internal Assessment could have on final grades that were weighted in accordance with IB standards!

Stay tuned.

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