This raises the question of why it’s always “grade inflation” we hear about and never “grade growth” or “educational productivity improvement”. A while ago I responded to this Chris Cook piece about The One Where They Decided To Downgrade Everyone To Match Their Class Except For Subjects Only Rich Kids Do – remember that? it’s as if it had been buried under another pile of monstrosities – and I pointed out that in the circumstances of 2020, it doesn’t make any sense to think of norm-referencing exams as a way of preventing grade inflation.
Let’s work through the logic. This cohort of students have missed a lot of school, we believe schooling is good and exams measure it, and therefore by construction we expect this cohort to do worse on the exams. Imposing norm-referencing – grading on a curve, in American – is not necessarily going to help here. If you draw a curve and decide that the top x per cent of students will get an A, you’re essentially promising x per cent of A grades, no matter how good or bad the students are. If you set this target to last year’s percentage of As, assuming the students are in fact worse, you have done the exact opposite of preventing grade inflation – you’ve baked it in. An A is achievable with worse exam performance than last year. That’s the definition of grade inflation.
This leads us to the counterintuitive conclusion that the government was trying to find a way of accepting the grade inflation without looking like that was what they were doing, and perhaps reserving its benefits to the right kind of people, but they catastrophically screwed up…but honestly, looking at this lot, how counterintuitive is that?
That led me to wonder why, given that they’ve been whining about grade inflation literally all my life, nobody has seriously tried to go back to norm-referenced exams.
I conclude that there are two conflicting motives at work – first, there’s the classic conservative motivation to impose a zero-sum selection process. In this view, there are only so many credentials to go around, they derive their value from their scarcity, and the role of government is to maintain this scarcity so as to preserve hierarchy. Obviously, if you believe this, you’re going to be very worried about standards, inflation, and the like. If you’re honest with yourself, though, you must also be opposed to any actual improvement in education, not just to illusory progress through generous marking, as to grow is to change.
On the other hand, not many conservatives are seriously willing to deny the possibility of improvement, and especially not on the campaign trail, and a lot of them are strong believers in the Protestant work ethic.
This reminds me of something I read in, I think, Theodore Zeldin – a speech by Adolphe Thiers arguing for fiscal austerity in terms that admitted he was more worried about the potentially progressive social effects of growth than inflation as such. This completely transformed my understanding of classical and Austrian economics, and I should probably write about this, as it shapes how I think of the relationship between modern libertarians and neo-reactionaries.
If you can’t get the Prussian army to murder anyone who disagrees, though, this level of brutal candour is not career-positive. It’s therefore necessary to argue that the austerity is eventually good for growth. In the educational sense, this implies promising the possibility of self-advancement, boasting of improved exam results, but also insisting on the restricted supply of credentials. Also, if it’s possible for the exam results to get better, the secretary of state for education can use this metric to impose managerial authority on the teachers. The three factors, taken together, imply that criterion referencing is here to stay, but that conservatives will never be able to resist the temptation to shade the numbers – and that is precisely the nonsystem Michael Gove created, and that blew up so badly this summer.