Thursday, September 5, 2013

Grading schemes at Australian universities

Currently I have to rank a large number of students by their grades (or marks, as Australians would traditionally put it). My efforts are not helped by the fact that I did not study here myself, but what is worse is the inconsistency between the various universities. Where other countries have a simple, nationally consistent system, the universities here use several different systems.

I think I am getting the hang of it, more or less. Things seem to be approximately like this:

High distinction (HD or H)    = H1    = 7    = A
Distinction (DI, DN or D)      = H2    = 6    = B
Credit (CR or C)                     = H3    = 5    = C
Pass (PS or P)                         = P      = 4    = D
Failed (N)                               = N      = <4  = ?

That sounds like a good guide until you realize that the category bounds differ from university to university. UNE for example awards a high distinction if you achieve 85% of a test score while ANU already awards the same grade at 80%. So if you merely count how many HDs and Ds somebody has, you are going to treat UNE students unfairly.

(Of course, there is always the question whether 82% are as equally easily achieved in both places but that is unavoidable under any system. Even if you standardize tests, the students will still have had different teachers.)

So to get an impression, let us consider the scheme currently adopted by the majority of universities, as far as I can tell. A pass or equivalent is achieved with 50%, credit with 60%, distinction with 70% and high distinction with 80%. Now perhaps you can call me a cranky old man who would not write like that if he still had to go through exams himself, but this looks very much to me as if Australia had some grade inflation going on.

Should the work of an aspiring academic be considered acceptable if they get half of it right? It depends on the type of test, but under certain circumstances you can achieve much of that score by guessing. Taking the commonly accepted meaning of that term into consideration, does somebody deserve a distinction when they get a mere 70% right? And should the highest grade available already go to those who manage to answer four of five questions? If you ask me (and perhaps you shouldn't), I would lift all categories by 10%; and yes, that includes the pass.

The idea with the grade inflation was confirmed by a few colleagues, by the way. A more senior scientist told me that there was no high distinction when she studied, and a colleague of my generation experienced a system with high distinctions, but you needed a higher score to achieve them.

One wonders when somebody will come up with the idea to introduce an new category for 90% and above, perhaps called "excellent". And a few decades of grade inflation later the categories will be fail (<50%), excellent (EX, 50%), superb (SU, 60%), stunning (ST, 70%), and mindbogglingly-awesome (MA+++, 80%).

Sorry, I do appear to be a bit of a cynic.

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