A-level grades, degree classifications and calling bullshit

Today I am reading both Calling Bullshit by Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom, and of a “growing crisis” over Scottish Higher results — presumably a similar crisis will happen for A levels when the results are released in a few days. I have got to the bit in Calling Bullshit where West and Bergstrom talk about bullshitting via statements that superficially look rigorous, but in reality are pretty flaky. In this blog post I want to suggest, possibly controversially, that the distinctions at the root of the growing crisis in Scotland, between a grade A and B in a Scottish Higher*, or a B and C, etc, have a slight whiff of bullshit about them.

As it applies to any grading system, I’ll use an example of an examination system I know more about than A levels or Scottish Highers: the degree classification system. Conventionally in the UK, you need a 70 % grade average to get the coveted First Class award. Thus, if we have three students, call them John, Mary and Olive, who get marks of 69%, 70% and 88%, respectively, then John gets an Upper Second Class degree, while Mary and Olive get First Class degrees.

The degree classification system has separated John from Mary, but not Olive from Mary. This is, as presumably West and Bergstrom would say, is bullshit. John and Mary did almost equally well, while Olive did much better than Mary.

Any classification into a handful of grades (A, B, C, … or I,. IIi, IIii, ..) does the this, because the boundaries are inevitably arbitrary. But it is precisely the setting and then movement up of these boundaries that is causing the crisis in Scotland.

I have a little sympathy for the politicians involved, they are the ones responsible for the system, and many of them frequently come up with bullshit like “Exam results are up 3 % this year”. But it is harsh on the students who are told getting a A or B grade is so important, get that grade and then have it taken away. That seems the completely unnecessary pain for them.

I think it is unnecessary, as in sane world we would worry more about whether all the students who can benefit from a university education go on to do it, and less about what exactly their grades are. Talk more about important questions like: Are students from all schools well prepared for university study, less about how many got As. And communicate to the students that a B or a C is not the end of the world, while an A may not transform their life.

* Scottish Higher is the Scottish equivalent of the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland A level. They are the last qualifications taken at school, and before university.

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