Grade degradation – bad money drives out good...
16 August 2021, Paul Finch
Given the surreal acceleration of academic grade degradation in respect of GCSEs and A levels, it will be intriguing to see just how many architects manage to graduate with first-class honours this year. As with school exam standards, the race to the bottom is well and truly flourishing as business-minded universities dish out firsts like confetti in order to attract students to attend their institutions – particularly those from overseas.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that a proportion of teachers dislike, in some cases intensely, the validation of their performance by independent third parties. Needless to say, they love the idea of their own assessments deciding what grades their students should get because (a) it makes them more powerful; and (b) it allows them, as it were, to mark their own homework. How very agreeable not to have third-party testing which establishes just how effective their teaching has been.
A friend of mine alerted me to the perils of grade degradation many years ago, when he took on a short-term contract to teach US students, enjoying a semester in London, about drawing. He was required to grade the students, but it was made crystal clear that none of the students (whose parent were paying substantial sums for their offspring to enjoy the London experience), should be given less than an A grade. It was permissible to give some students an A*, but anything less than an A would probably result in lawsuits. My pal went along with this but turned down any further work. Giving a hopeless or lazy student an A went against everything he understood as academic integrity. That is now all out of the window.
The strange thing about reducing standards, apart from the fraud being perpetrated on unwitting students who regard themselves as educated when they can scarcely string two sentences together, write an essay or have a basic knowledge of spelling and grammar, is that it is quite unnecessary.
In fact it would be perfectly possibly to make exams and expectations much tougher than currently, without penalising anybody. The way you do this is to set out in advance what percentage of students will receive A grades or firsts, then B and second-class honours and so on. You are looking for the brightest and best, so you can make things as challenging as possible. It won’t affect the percentages. This is broadly what happened in the better universities where, 30 years ago, the number of firsts was limited to about 10 per cent. That doubled and is still increasing, and now those same institutions are pondering the implications of weaker universities dropping standards for commercial benefit. What are they supposed to do?
The idea that it is easy to design buildings, carry out medical operations, or calculate how best to make things stand up or achieve high environmental standards, is absurd. Giving people passes in mathematics when they have got most of the answers wrong is as offensive as it is stupid. It certainly has nothing to do with competence, and it may be that the RIBA’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, plus government calls for greater accountability, will need to take this into account. If schools lack integrity in their examination processes, why should we trust them to decide who is entitled to professional qualifications?
The pity is that those students really deserving of the highest accolades are being cheated (and know it) when they see far less deserving work getting the same grades. They don’t complain in public, of course. Apart from anything else, they have their portfolios to show prospective employers unimpressed by ‘first-confetti’ syndrome. They are also generally too decent to criticise the work of their fellow-students.
Schools love to show off the very best drawings and the projects by star students. What they don’t do is invite us to compare all the work which has generated firsts so we can assess whether it is of the same excellent standard, or whether the gap between best and worst is obviously too great to justify, not only internally, but in relationship to bodies of work in other competitive institutions. The chances of this happening are remote, to put it mildly.
But if all must have prizes, why bother with Prize Day?