Assessment versus intellect
I was genuinely surprised to read that Professor Roderick Floud,
president of Universities UK, has rejected the idea that degree
inflation has become a fact of life on British campuses (Inflation
by degrees, Education Guardian, March 18). I have not yet talked
to a single academic who has lectured for more than 15 years who
shares Floud's touching faith in the high standard of a British
university degree. The fact is that degree inflation is continually
driven by powerful institutional pressures that affect the day-to-day
life of most academics.
The pressure to compete for student numbers has a profound impact
on the way students are assessed and examined. It provides institutions
with the incentive to please, placate and flatter.
The transformation of the student into a customer means that a
good degree is increasingly seen as the outcome of a commercial
transaction. As a result, institutions place strong pressure on
academics to mark students "positively". Positive marking
has become the hallmark of a customer-friendly university.
I have not come across a single instance where a department was
criticised for marking too generously. However, numerous colleagues
report that their departments have been warned for failing too many
students or for not giving enough 2:1 or first-class degrees.
Outside auditing agencies reinforce this trend. In one instance,
a colleague who served as a chief examiner for his department was
reprimanded by a quality-assurance bureaucrat for not giving a first
to any of the students. My colleague's protestations were dismissed
with the words: "Don't tell me that none of your students are
smart enough to get a first."
Grade inflation is also fuelled by the pressure to respond to an
increasingly heterogeneous student population by altering the curriculum
and methods of assessment. Many observers have noted that the shift
from relying on final examinations to continuous assessment has
contributed to the devaluation of a university degree. However,
in principle there is nothing objectionable about using different
forms of assessment to calculate final marks. The culprit is not
continuous assessment but the fundamental redefinition of the meaning
The problem is that the new forms of assessment promoted by the
Institute of Learning and Teaching and other external bureaucratic
agencies are invariably designed to bypass the need to test students'
grasp of the intellectual content of the discipline.
Advocates of the ILT behaviourist type of pedagogy continually
exhort academics to adopt new forms of assessments to meet the needs
of a more diverse student body. At a recent quality assurance audit
meeting, one senior academic was taken aback when his colleagues
were advised to accept posters or collage-style assessment as an
alternative to traditional essays. It was claimed that "patchwork
essays" broaden access to education for those who are estranged
from the experience of writing essays.
These days, just about anything can constitute an object of assessment:
writing a CV, reflecting on the experience of working in a placement
or an outline of an essay can all constitute a piece of assessment.
The scornful dismissal of the traditional essay expresses a philistine
contempt for the idea that it is the student's knowledge that ought
to constitute the object of academic assessment.
Almost imperceptibly, the meaning of assessment has changed. Virtually
any aspect of a student's experience now constitutes the object
of a new assessment instrument. Peer, self and group assessment
are referred to in the same breath as the more boring traditional
ones. Assessment is not so much about testing and evaluating as
about the management of students' university experience.
This new Taylorist approach towards assessment claims that assessment
is at the heart of the learning process. This outwardly attractive
notion elides the distinction between feedback and evaluation. Moreover,
it demands that evaluation should be supportive and by implication
The current version of continuous assessment lacks intellectual
content because it is not primarily oriented towards the task of
testing and evaluating the knowledge of a discipline. Its purpose
is to monitor and manage students. That it also contributes to the
determination of the grade of a student's degree is of secondary
It is not the greater emphasis on assessment that is responsible
for grade inflation. What has happened is that forms of assessment
that lack intellectual merit are assuming an increasing role in
the university sector. At best they attempt to assess different
learning outcomes - bite-size chunks of education - but not knowledge.
As a result, often what is graded has little in common with assessments
that are consistent with academic standards.
Grade inflation is only a symptom of the problem. We are not simply
assessing more leniently, but what we assess has little to do with
the intellectual content of a university degree.
published in the Guardian, 25 March 2003