Study: Greater transparency needed to prevent grade inflation

GRADE inflation is a global issue, even affecting high-performing institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In the UK, many of its graduates attained first-class degrees during the Covid-19 pandemic – a laudable achievement except for the fact that more than half of the high achievements in 2021 could not be justified, according to Office for Students (OfS), the UK’s independent regulator of higher education, in May last year.

“The sustained increase in unexplained firsts awarded continues to pose regulatory concerns for the OfS,” its chief executive Susan Lapworth said in a statement on the OfS website.

The issue was splashed across the front page of The Times, and widely reported in The Guardian and other news portals.During the pandemic, grade inflation saw students in Ireland graduating high school with impressive leaving certificates and good grades, which were important to further their studies.

This eventually resulted in a rise in the Central Applications Office (CAO) points, which are used to rank applicants for undergraduate courses in Irish universities and colleges.

Higher points across the board mean that students wanting to pursue their tertiary education are eventually selected randomly, by luck of the draw, and not by their performance, as many of them share similar CAO points.

Commenting on the issue, University of Galway president Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh said inflated grades for the leaving certificates were unfair to students because they made it harder for colleges to identify true top students for high-point courses, as reported in The Irish Times.

The revelation was surprising considering U.S. News had ranked Ireland as among the top 20 countries with the best education systems last year.

Harvard University in the United States was not spared, according to an article published by the varsity’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

The article published on Oct 3 last year noted that a failure to address the problem eventually led to grade compression – an even more worrying issue.Grade compression happens when the distribution of grades for a particular course or programme is grouped at the high end of the scale, leading to an increased number of As or Bs, and fewer Cs, Ds and Fs, the article stated.

In Malaysia, grade inflation remains an understudied, but a long-standing and often highlighted phenomenon.

A study found that more than half of the aspiring teachers in 16 out of 27 Institute of Teacher Education (IPGM) campuses nationwide graduated with first-class degrees for the academic years from 2017 to 2019.

The research, led by Dr Ramlan Mustapha, was published in the International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation under the title “Grade Inflation in Higher Education: A Guidance for Future Research and Solutions”.

The study, published in May 2020, called for greater transparency among HEIs. Grading must be made public, including the grading criteria, standards and processes, which can help ensure grades are being awarded fairly and consistently, the paper read.

Whether grade inflation claims stem from reality or an unjustified distrust in the country’s education system, steps must be taken to guard the value of our As — particularly in light of ChatGPT which can produce academic essays in a matter of seconds — if we are to ensure employable graduates who are respected and who truly represent the results they profess to have earned. As Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin noted in his New Year Message to ministry staff last month, both private and public universities, polytechnics and community colleges are battling a trust deficit.

“We must restore the trust that has been lost. We must be the most trusted and most credible higher education system again.

“Parents work hard to send their children to our HEIs and hundreds of thousands of international students come here to study not for superficial reasons like rankings, but because they believe the quality of our education will ensure a brighter future,” he said on Jan 30.

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