An inquiry ordered by education minister Batt O'Keeffe last week found evidence of a significant increase in the number of students getting top marks in their Leaving Certificate results and in higher education. But just how serious is this for Ireland, as a society and an economy struggling to recover from the depths of recession? Should we be doing more to tackle the seemingly endless rise in grades here, or are our students simply getting better? The Sunday Tribune canvassed the views of a variety of people with an interest in the topic to find out.
"The evidence of grade inflation is overwhelming. At second level, the percentage of Leaving Certificate higher grades has soared with no real improvement in learning. The enormous expansion in third-level entrants has resulted in increasingly weaker cohorts (added to ever-inflating Leaving Certificate grades) entering college degrees. This should have resulted in an average decrease in third-level grades, but instead they have rocketed upward.
"Since 2004, my colleagues and I in the Network for Irish Educational Standards published extensive research and tried to call a halt to this shameful debacle. The educational establishment ignored our findings of grade inflation and merrily carried on basking in the 'success' of growth and institutional expansion. As for the educational regulators, their only 'touch' was to applaud the march to collapse.
"Such grade inflation destroys the credibility of educational institutions and their awards. It results in no differentiation of what constitutes real achievement. This dishonesty saps the motivation of talented students while rewarding those who coast through their courses. Employers are then left to figure out whose qualifications represent actual learning and whose grades are deeply misleading.
"A culture emerged within education where pressure was subjected to inflate grades. High grades are expected and regarded as a measure of success. Low grades are a problem that can be subsequently 'adjusted' upward.
"Would an admission of culpability by the leaders of education and the start of serious reform be too much to dream? So far, the outlandish claims by university presidents of ever harder-working students and a nirvana of educational transformation surely merit an academy of inflated Oscars."
"Nowadays students are much more tactically aware of what they need to do to maximise their results, and they work harder to achieve that. They know they are competing for jobs and that only very good grades will get them the careers they want, so they apply themselves to get that result. In the 1980s and earlier the pace was slower, and the exact grade a student got didn't matter as much.
"It is probably fair to say that until about the late 1980s Irish academics were very reluctant either to award first-class degrees or to fail students, and typically results were clustered in the middle of the range. Since then we have become fairer at recognising excellence, and to that extent it has become easier to obtain a high grade. But it does require hard work, and we still award fewer first-class degrees than is the norm in other countries like the UK and the US.
"I don't believe we have dumbed down, but I do believe we have problems in our system. I think we are at risk of putting ourselves in a position where we cannot correct any of the problems due to lack of resources. We cannot maintain an education system that will compete with the best if we are starving it of funding."
"There is no doubt that the points system has led to a situation where students study in such a way that they can focus on key areas that are likely to feature in the state examinations. In addition, examination marking schemes were not always available to students or indeed teachers (unless you were involved in marking exams). The availability of these allows students to focus on particular elements of examinations and studying strategies that can help them optimise their marks. I don't think it's necessarily easier to obtain a high grade than it was in previous years.
"Irish students perform consistently well when compared to students in other OECD countries, particularly in relation to science and literacy. A large fall in grades would be a considerably more worrying scenario.
"There are very contradictory messages emerging. On the one hand we all advocate that most young people should stay in school to complete the Leaving Cert. We also believe and indeed have put many measures in place to improve performance and outcomes for a wider cohort of the population. I am deeply concerned that it's the multinational agenda that being seen as the driving force here.
"A far greater cause for concern is the harm being done to our education system by cutbacks over the last 18 months or so… Far from being dumbed down, syllabi have been enhanced. Commentators should look at the positives more."
"If you look at it, the college student doesn't hold the university accountable for the quality of their education. So what happens then is the college student basically turns on the government because of a lack of funding but nobody is holding the universities accountable for the quality of the teaching and the quality of the degree. I think what we should do, and a potential different way of doing this, is to introduce fees but turn it around and say… that anybody who gets results up to a certain standard will have them credited back to them in arrears.
"Ask what outputs we need as a country and then hold people accountable for the outputs. Currently with universities, the funding is based on inputs. It would appear that to get into a lot of our master's programmes you need a second-class honours grade one degree (2:1) and miraculously the number of 2:1s has gone way up. That's another funding mechanism. So I think let's relook at it and say okay, let's go output-driven rather than input-driven and then I think in all forms of education you should be able to measure the teachers. In no other business in the world can you not measure the deliverer of the service."
* See related articles for full interview
"I do in general share the concerns about the quality of Irish school-leavers and graduates. If we are going to compete internationally, mediocre is not good enough. I would say if you go back a few years to the middle part of the last decade, when I was involved in hiring people, the standards of graduates for me was a concern, and we would have been hiring worldwide. It is difficult to generalise, but there would have been cases where we wouldn't have been able to find a sufficiently large number of suitable graduates in Ireland.
"The trend towards grade inflation is an interesting observation if it's true. But it is not the biggest issue. We should be producing as many graduates as possible who are indisputably world-class, who are able to compete with the best in the world. What we want to be hearing from the multinational sector is that graduates in Ireland really are world-class. I don't think that is the case now. I don't think we're there. It is absolutely realistic for us to be aiming for this. We've got the raw talent in terms of people. I doubt whether there is one single thing we need to do; there is a range of things we need to do right from primary school to university level. But at university, for example, we need to ensure we have world-class faculty staff.
"We need to make sure we have enough wood behind the arrow. By that I mean by investing sufficient resources in areas where we can be world-class rather than spreading the resources too thinly. So the key message should be about producing world-class talent. In that context, grade inflation is not the biggest issue for me."
"The success of US companies in Ireland to date has been based around the skills, qualities and productivity of an overall highly educated workforce. Were they not so well-qualified, and had they not been so productive, then the multinational sector would not have continued its developments in Ireland at such a strong pace.
"To maintain this momentum, it is imperative that Ireland's education system remains in line with international standards and is considered best in class. Maintaining a high standard of education at second and third level is vital if we are to work towards restoring our economy and increasing our competitiveness on the global stage. We welcome any initiative that seeks to ensure the high calibre of Ireland's graduates."
"While I recognise there is a perception that grades may be inflated, perhaps we are getting the issue out of proportion. The Leaving Certificate curriculum is designed to cater for almost 90% of the student cohort. There have been changes to the curriculum but I do not feel there has been a 'dumbing down'. On the one hand, different teaching methods have liberated ability and talent in students who heretofore would have been deemed 'not suitable' for upper second or third-level education. On the other hand, the student body has become more sophisticated, working to modes of assessment that we set, and in a sense they have cracked the code.
"It is true that a greater number of students are obtaining As now but don't forget Leaving Certificate is a broad, general system of education as opposed to the specialised A-level approach in the UK. General concern has been expressed that only 16% of students sit higher-level maths but almost 100% study maths at some level. What percentage takes maths at A-level in England?
"It is important to educate for the economy but you also have to educate for society. As a school principal (and English teacher) dealing with mixed-ability students, I'm not sure it is reasonable to design our education system to meet the needs of Google and others; however, the two are not mutually exclusive. An enlightened education system would try to cater for the needs of the economy and the needs of society."