Exam Grade Inflation


As I fell off the mountain, I learnt all about grade inflation

Nah, I thought, this can’t be right. I looked over the edge, and scrabbled like a beetle on the lip of a huge white bath. This can’t be the piste, I whispered to myself, as the wind whipped up thin dusty flurries of snow around my skis, and the sweat of fear chilled instantly on my brow.

I had just slipslid along a snake-like defile on the top of an 8,000ft peak, and now the route required me to launch myself down the slope.

Except that this wasn’t a slope, so much as a rash of hideous round protuberances on the wall of a precipice. These moguls were not your normal manageable moguls, like gigantic lumps of mashed potato. They were freakishly hollowed out on the uphill side, like waves frozen in the act of breaking, and as I stared at them I could just imagine how their jaws would catch the edge of my skis and flip me out and down into the void, and – aaargh.

No, it had to be a mistake. There had to be a sensible route down. For an ignoble second, I thought of undoing my bindings and grovelling back up the couloir. Until I remembered that I had just passed an English family higher up. They would spot me. My humiliation would be too obvious.

So I looked again down the slope, and saw that it was indeed a ski run, in the sense that there were other people on it. To be exact, there were two people – a ski instructor pleading with a poor woman who was apparently digging a bivouac for herself between the moguls.

Just as I was trying to work out which was worse – the shame of retreat or the terror of advance – I heard a hissing of skis behind me, and realised that my 12-year-old was trying to pass me and the time for hesitation was over.

As I slid over the edge, I cursed, and do you know what I cursed? I cursed grade inflation, and the illusion of accomplishment it can bring. After a couple of days in Courchevel, I had formulated an explanation for the vast annual migration of Brits to this French resort.

Ski runs are divided into Greens (peasy), Blues (pretty easy), Reds (Hmmm) and Blacks (Yikes) but at Courchevel the authorities have done a cunning trick and almost all the “Black runs” are frankly so pounded and manicured as to be nothing more than undulating motorways, about as precipitous as the M40 wending through the Chiltern Gap; and these soi-disant Blacks so perfectly flatter the talents of us hopeless-to-intermediate British skiers that the hills are alive with the sound of Harry looking for Harriet, and at the bottom of every run you will find Fiona or Smanfa on her mobile telling someone they are breaking up and can they all meet at the Panoramique, and as we bray and hoot our way round the bars and restaurants, you can see the smiles getting ever tauter on the faces of the French locals, their mood only momentarily improving when they hear the happy electronic chunter of the British credit cards being accepted into the maw of French credit card machines; and we are paying not just for the quality of the night life, my friends. We are paying for that unbeatable feeling of distinction of prestige that goes with skiing a Black run; and who can blame us?

Would you rather descend a Courchevel Black run with the merest shimmy of the hips and twiddle of the poles? Or would you rather slide down a real Black run, ones of those bowls of death, in a tangle of shaken bones and scraped skin?

We go to Courchevel for the ego boost, the reassurance, for the chance to brag to our friends how we really caned it down that Blackie, and, in so far as Courchevel appears to be deliberately dumbing down its toughest runs, the resort poses a central question of educational psychology.

It is one thing to boost people’s confidence and attract their custom. But at what cost to truth? Every morning you see the Panzer-like piston-bullies go up to munch the moguls, and in the same way British educational establishments are competing to masticate the syllabus and make the marks of excellence more easily attainable.

There are more A grades at A-level than ever before, and there seems no doubt that universities are subtly competing to give students more of the big prizes – the first and upper seconds – and, although no university would admit it, they know it pays to be generous.

Not only are universities partly ranked according to the number of Firsts they dish out, but, if you were a candidate hesitating between two rival establishments, you’d surely go to the one where you were more likely to be clapped on the back and told that you’d knocked off the academic equivalent of the Black run.

Wouldn’t that be better than some place where they say: Sorry chum, those Blacks are too steep for you; you’re a Red piste man at best?

And therein lies the essential dilemma of education, the eternal trade-off between boosterism and reality. We all want our children to feel praised and encouraged, and we all want them to feel so good and confident about themselves that they risk something new; and it was that very feeling that impelled me down.

“It’s only another Blackie,” I said to myself as I flailed into space. “I can do Blackies. I can bomb down,” I said, until reality inevitably intervened and in the moment of doom I verified that all my so-called Black piste qualifications were utterly useless, and first one ski hit my head and the other came off, and for what seemed an age I skidded down the icy scree to where my son was waiting patiently below, and I reflected on this profound truth as I waited to die: that you can do all sorts of tricks to the grades of the pistes and the grades of our students, but – in the academic world as in alpine sport – there are some places where you can do nothing to change the gradient of the mountain.

29 thoughts on “Exam Grade Inflation”

  1. I’m in the position of having worked in a UK university, and now back in the private sector. Depressingly I would feel unable to offer jobs to most of the people who graduated from the courses I taught on, precisely because of the grade inflation Boris describes. I suspect that, if pressed to answer honestly and freed from fear of retribution, many others still lecturing would respond in the same way.

    I confess I have little idea how to solve the problem, other than reducing the proportion of people attending university, but if university education is to have continued value in the job market, a solution there must be.

  2. Why are people so afraid of telling someone they have failed or that they are unable to do something. I am by no way academic, i work all day elbow deep in grease, only because i was told that i was only good with my hands not my head. Not to say that i was dishartend they were right. People must be told when they have reached their peak their top level, we must stop trying to get everyone to think there Steven Hawkins, it’s a huge shame but were not all capable, some are just born to sweep streets some are born to fix thing’s (me) and other are born to invent and run things.

  3. <‘Except that this wasn’t a slope, so much as a rash of hideous round protuberances on the wall of a precipice…’ (Boris)<


  4. “Nah”. Not a word, Johnson, you spotty little oik. You think you can get a grade in my classroom by the sloppy use of the vernacular?
    Give me an assembly hall full of gum-chewing, ipod listening, sweaty media studies graduates rather than an opposition spokesman who uses the word “Nah”, any day.

    I did check my dictionary (Concise Oxford). Nah is an abbreviation of the Hebrew prophet Nahum. I have made an exhaustive study of Nahum. He was, like most of the Hebrew prophets, a miserable bugger. Probably voted Conservative.

  5. This piste was Les Bosses in Meribel, wasn’t it? Yikes indeed.

    I had a similar problem there – bumps that made me want to cry like a baby. The experience was made worse only by my wife looking up at me with her ‘concerned’ face on, having just managed to pop down the slope with no trouble at all.

    Oh yes, grade inflation. Dreadful stuff. Can’t see an immediate answer to it though. Everyone (parents, press, schoolkids deciding whether to appeal) will go nuts if, one year, grades are worse than the previous year, despite the fact that logically this should happen quite regularly.

  6. Over breakfast at the Kilimanjaro les anglais are discussings Borris’s assessment of the Courchevel blacks – as it sounds so terrifying ‘beetle and the bath’ and all that (nice imagery) the analogy with grade inflation doesn’t quite work – mind you 6 year old Bart came down a black yesterday and that simply was not possible in my day.

    But having been to university 20 years ago and again recently to do a masters I was amazed by the decline in standards and what lecturers will accept from students – everyone passes whatever they do – no sense of achievement ultimately and a degree become valueless for everyone.

  7. <‘everyone passes whatever they do’ (Lucy Allan)<

    Simply not true. I was at an ex-polytechnic, or ‘new’ university, plenty of people either got booted off courses or failed.

  8. If Scurra had paid attention in class and not scraped by as a beneficiary of grade inflation, he might now have access to the complete OED, in which we find

    nah, adv.2
    = NO adv.2 Cf. na, variant of NO adv.2

    1920 C. SANDBURG Smoke & Steel 45 Nothin’ ever sticks to my fingers, nah, nah, nothin’ like that. 1950 Astounding Sci. Fiction Nov. 97 ‘I’ll fight you,’ offered Borklin. His huge fists closed. ‘Nahwhy? Wouldn’t be a fight, anyway.’ 1982 J. SULLIVAN Only Fools & Horses (1999) I. 1st Ser. Episode 2. 96 Irene. Are there any nice places around here? Rodney. Na! 1999 D. KING Boxy an Star (2000) 189 Paper boy thinkin: Nah mate. Aint worth it it aint.


  9. Thank you, Black Knight, I am suitably humbled. I look forward to the day when all education spokesmen model their vocabulary on the Trotters.

  10. I think a big problem with A-levels is the modular system. Because students take modules which are examined every semester they can retake the actual exams up to four times without being considered resit students. This means that many of today’s students have A-grades not because they are of an A-grade standard, but because they have taken the exam so many times that they have been able to improve their exams style after so much practice. This means that students who only get one chance to sit the exams are at a major disadvantage and will have their grade put down because of the way they grading system curves the grades. I knew someone who took three years to do their A-levels, retook each exam the maximum amount of times possible (six I think, in his case) and got straight A’s and of course got a place at a good university over other students who may have got lower grades, but had done the A-levels in two years without any resits. Surely that is unfair

  11. ‘A’ grades at ‘A’ level are the result of grade inflation; there are simply too many people getting four A’s now compared to thirty years back.

    One of the reasons was that schools were allowed to choose the exam boards, instead of having to go with those that came with the region. And of course they automatically choose the easiest to pass, so there is inevitably a rush to the bottom.

    I doubt if there is a lot of grade inflation at undergraduate level. There are many more students now proportionateley, but if you look at the top universities it’s doubtful that results are a great deal better than in the past. On the other hand British post-graduate degrees given to foreigners are a scam; because this is money for the university people are accepted for courses they don’t have a chance of passing normally, but yet they still pass. Look at viva voces replaced by powerpoint demonstrations to get some idea of the fiddling involved.

  12. Hell, Mr. Johnson, Sir, have you noticed you take those unnecessary chances when you are young and logically can least afford to? When you are drawing your pension you have less to lose. So strap on the semtex waistcoat and give Blair the hot handshake (written in jest, naturally).

  13. Exam grade inflation is the least of our worries. Check out the emerging discussion on Boris’s Forum about classroom anarchy – see here

    [Ed: amended for easy view]

  14. I believe ‘nah’ to be ‘no’ in the working class Viennese accent. Coming from an ex-Etonian, such allegiance to the lower classes must be welcomed. The problem over lowering grades only happened when education was turned into a market place. Could someone please remind me just which Prime Minister it was that did that? Of course, had exam systems not been continually modified by government after government, this decline might not have been so apparent.

  15. I am currently studying for my A-levels, and I would just like to point out that although many more people get A grades these days – that is now what is expected of you. In the late 60s my dad got into Oxford university with two Ds and an E – the sort of grades that would leave any student these days without a hope of getting into a ‘Russel group’ level university. To people who did their A-levels a long time ago it might seem unfair that we can all get A grades when they had to settle for a C (or a Red slope) but it is how it works now…times have changed I’m afraid. The difficulty of exams hasn’t decreased, we are just better prepared for them – and thank goodness! otherwise we wouldn’t have a hope of getting on to our desired courses, and getting on with our lives. The pretence of being black-slops standard is just the modern way.

  16. Heidi,
    Your comment proves that standards have dropped. You do not appear to have any analytical abilities whatsoever. The reason why universities require higher grades now is simply because more students obtain these higher grades. Do you think that if only a handful of students obtained A grades each year universities would leave most of their places empty (and get fined) rather than take students with lower grades? The higher grades required by universities is simply a result of grade inflation. A-levels are easier now, apart from anything else students can retake modules again and again (and buy coursework to order from certain internet sites)-no wonder you are better prepared. This grade inflation is also the reason why many universities are setting their own entrance exams now as an A at A level is no longer an indication of an ability to undertake an academic degree.

  17. No amount of dumbing down has stopped me noticing my tax bill just doubled. Should’ve given it a few more years before the effects of abolishing education really kicked in Gordon.

  18. Speaking as a current A-level student the exams don’t feel that easy, though thats probably because i’ve been raised in an an education system that, clearly, goes too softly on us hoody wearing hooligans! What about the class sizes of quite often more than 30? And the constant disruption of classes that arises because of this. Believe me when I say this adds difficulty to passing exams. I also find the argument of making exams harder somewhat redundant (Though Universities do need a way of defferetiating candidates………oh wait why don’t they all just interview or ask for submitted work?), just because an exam is hard it doesn’t mean it proves anything. I’m sure memorising the complete works of Plato would be difficult but it doesn’t prove much other than your disturbingly good memory or the fact that you have managed to read Paul Mckenna’s latest edition of: Memory Improvement Psycho Babble. Exams now actually test skills of deduction and ask students to make their own conclusions and analysis on the topic in hand.
    P.S Subjects with the words “Applied” or “Studies” in the title probably should be outlawed.

  19. They still need to sift them into bands of relative ability, instead of giving then all A’s

  20. Ed Abercrombie said “What about the class sizes of quite often more than 30?”

    I went to school in the 70’s (say nothing Vicus, it was a fine vintage) and the class sizes were 40-45. It didn’t stop anyone passing exams (which were not just a test of memory, thankyou), however, one difference was that if you disrupted the class you got a board rubber thrown at your head.

    And applied maths and physics should be outlawed? No. Degrees in ghostbusting and surfing should be outlawed.

  21. Yes there is certainly a discipline issue, especially in Secondary school, though it does carry over in to post 16 education. This it really why large class sizes are such a big issue in my experience. If classes were smaller then students could me more engaged and then maybe we could set harder exams. There does also need to be more deferentiation of ablity in the exam grades.

  22. When I was at school many years ago in Scotland a fixed percentage of candidates got an A grades (I think 10%) so at least potential employees had a fair idea of our relative standing. Perhapes not a perfect system bur surley better than having a huge range of abilities all getting the same grade.

  23. In the late 60s my dad got into Oxford university with two Ds and an E

    Probably because he passed the entrance exam, which was difficult (people with three ‘A’s were known to fail, though that was not common).

    You wouldn’t have got into a Russell group uni in the 60s on the basis of two Ds and an E, though that might have been possible in unpopular subjects.

    I don’t know about now, but in the 60s and 70s, there were vast differences in the qualifications required for different subjects. When I went to University the two that required the highest grades were English Literature and Accounting (the second because Accountancy paid really well in 1969; the salaries slumped when all the accounting graduates left uni in 1972-1973). On the other hand it was generally recognized that it was easier to get a high grade in an Arts subject than a Science one.

    Now I shouldn’t be criticizing grade inflation too much today, as I’ve just been told that a university exam I set the students did yesterday, had a much higher mean mark than usual.

    “But it was the same exam as two years ago (a Listening exam so no chance the students had old copies).”

    “But the results were much lower two years ago.”

    “Ah, perhaps that’s because we’re teaching them better.”

    “Nope; I reckon it’s because the guy on the new tape didn’t speak as fast.”

    Oh well!

  24. Is it not possible that students are simply ‘getting smarter’? And that they are now being victimised for their higher levels of intelligence and understanding, so that they are seen to be having an easier time of it, so to speak?

  25. I was in the first year group to take the AS/A2 exams amd I can reveal that they were the easiest exams I have ever sat. You can take any of the modules again until you get a decent mark and swap modules around from your AS to A2 qualification, again until the best result is obtained.

    As for university, the supposed height of education, you can quite happily do nothing all year, revise for a week or two and end up with 60-80% easily. I didn’t think it was possible to revise a whole year’s worth university standard syllabus in a matter of days and pass let alone achieve a first!Things need to be made harder, I study Physics and there are people on my course still struggling with basic calculus. Things need to be taught properly and without one eye on the exam at the end of the year!!

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