Percentages don't make the grade 1

November 24, 2006

The thinking behind David Booth's letter (November 17) about grading, marks and the 2:1 fell into a common trap. He wrote that "a 2:1 already means a degree mark of 65 or better". Once you start reporting percentages and implicitly believing that these scores are a universal currency, all is lost. For all but objective tests (which are a whole different story) percentages are themselves used by markers as qualitative flags of level.

Whether we choose to call (say) 40, 45 or 50 per cent the pass level, or in this case 60, 65 or 67.5 per cent as the "good 2.1" threshold is arbitrary. As long as you and your colleagues have agreed that (say) 65 per cent flags an answer (essay, dissertation, whatever) satisfactorily adjudged a "good 2.1", with all that entails, all is well. You can then choose (or have imposed upon you) to re-label this "percentage" as a B, B+, A- or whatever you wish.

In the end, these answers are being marked and students graded to criteria. These criteria can be formally defined, and one would hope they are. But be in no doubt that grading criteria remain implicit. Slavish attention to percentages - and even to letter grades - obscures that fact. Thus the judgments used to apply to criteria, and thence to arrive at the percentage or grade, remain subjective.

Since the students subject themselves to academics for grading, it behoves us to act to the best of our academic abilities and all will be well - or individually consistent, at least. Whether grade drift or dumbing down occurs remains in our hands, at least in principle.

David Miller.
Biomedical SciencesGlasgow University

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