Grade inflation: Should we care?

Aug 22, 2018 | Sector & policy

ISE Chief Executive Stephen Isherwood debunks the assumption that grades are a top priority for employers.

The proportion of students achieving top A-Level grades has reached a six-year high – despite the tougher exams designed to raise standards and curb grade inflation.

Over in higher education the grade inflation debate continues. University firsts have more than quadrupled in eight years at some institutions.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: “Students across the country work hard for their results and they deserve grading system that recognises their hard work. That is why this government has put an end to grade inflation in GCSEs and A-levels, and why it is time for universities to do the same.”

When it comes to employers, the only ones I can imagine are exercised by the increased number of firsts are those that hire academics. For other employers, grade inflation in itself is not really much of an issue.

What do employers seek in student hires?

Employers seek four key attributes in their student hires: an ability to get stuff done with and through other people (teamwork); a problem-solving ability to deal with the organisation’s challenges (practical intelligence); an ambition to learn and develop within the organisation (growth mindset); a willingness to do difficult, sometimes less than exciting tasks (work ethic).

“Employers care less about grades than many people think they do”. 

What I do question is whether our education system is focused enough on developing the skills, knowledge and attributes our all our young people need to help them, and therefore our organisations and society, succeed. Passing exams is part of the learning process and grades a useful measure of performance but employers care less about grades than many people think they do.

Yes, many graduate employers, 69%, ask for a minimum of a 2:1. But as three out of four students hit this benchmark it doesn’t put them in a very exclusive club. Far fewer employers set a UCAS minimum for applicants (21%). And the prevalence of both these measures in recruiting is in decline (40% stipulated minimum UCAS tariffs in 2014).

The increased availability of sophisticated data and advances in technology has changed how employers assess candidates. Equipped with a more accurate set of tools to predict a successful hire, they are less reliant on grades.

In addition, the social mobility movement has challenged employers who use arbitrary benchmarks to think differently. Those who continue to use grades will look at contextual data to assess grades relative to a candidate’s schooling and background – looking for someone who is outperforming their peers, rather than focusing on absolute grades.

“Grades…are a blunt cut-off”

The trouble with grades is that they are a blunt cut-off. Historically, some employers have argued that grades are a useful proxy to define a talent pool when most don’t care what specific subject a student has studied. We sometimes forget that we are talking about hiring people with little experience. Once you have a track record, what grades you have become, well, academic.

And if employers knew how diverse the degree awarding systems different universities use they would rely on them even less. In the UK the numbering system used for degree classification may be standardised but the algorithms that create the number are not. Universities are autonomous institutions and set their own policies and at a subject level mathematics by its nature has to be marked differently to history.

Grades are a snapshot. High grades also reward perfection and work for most of us is far less absolutist. The answer to a work problem that is represented by a ‘first’ is probably too expensive and will take too long to achieve. In work, the most efficient solution is often the most productive; a 2:1 is better than a first.

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