Credit: Merrion Street

Grade inflation: The scandal nobody is calling a scandal

There should be no particular mystery about why it is, this year, that the number of leaving cert students who achieved maximum points absolutely skyrocketed:

The reason for this inflation is obvious: The department of education, fearful that it would be blamed by some parents if their children did not do well in the context of a year of school closures, instructed that those marking the examinations should take the lockdown and the impact of school closures into account. Formally and informally, up and down the examinations process, political pressure was exerted to make sure that people’s “hard work” was recognised and rewarded. The result is record high marks.

But of course, record high marks have disastrous consequences. They mean, for example, that some students who achieved full marks still cannot access their preferred courses, because the numbers with full marks applying for those courses exceeds the number of places available. The grades have gone up, but the number of places in colleges remains the same. The net effect, unsurprisingly, is that the points required for popular courses have soared.

All because, if we’re honest about it, Norma Foley and the Government did not want to face criticism from parents whose kids missed out on the six H1s.

Of course, when grades inflate like this, it has another consequence: It cheapens the achievement and the work of those who really merited the results they achieved. Put very simply, 600 points is much less of an achievement this year than it was in years past. Before 2021, achieving 600 points was a testament to very rare academic ability. This year, it might be. Or, it might be testament to very generous marking by examiners, or very generous grading by those who set the predicted grades.

It will – and should – also be hard to reverse.

Why, for example, should next year’s students be marked more harshly than this years? Why should sitting your leaving cert in 2022 materially impact your chances of getting a course you would have gotten easily, had you simply sat the exam a year earlier?

And what about those who, on the basis of these results, decide to repeat their leaving cert? That’s a common decision, in Ireland. But the fact of the matter is that this year, it is one of the most unwise decisions anybody could make, since it is not likely that the exams will be graded with the same leniency next year.

Indeed, because of this grade inflation, it is perfectly possible that a student could objectively perform better next year, but receive worse grades.

We are not, for some reason, treating this years leaving cert results as a national scandal, but we very much should be. The fact is that these results will materially impact an unknown number of students, in a very negative way. And that negative impact is almost all the result of a political decision to try and avoid criticism of lockdown and school closures.

As with so much in this pandemic, it is young people, again, who are suffering from the feckless stupidity of the people who govern us.

There is a lot to be angry about in Ireland. But this one merits much more anger than it will ever receive.

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