HomeOpinion & AnalysisProper grading systems separate exceptional students from the rest

Proper grading systems separate exceptional students from the rest

Professor Arthur G.O. Mutambara

I have seen press reports about this year’s Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examination results all over the place. I want to congratulate all the students, schools and teachers who excelled. Makorokoto makuru (Congratulations)!

However, on the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (Zimsec) Advanced Level examination results, there is a slight problem of grade inflation — a pernicious and ruinous national cancer. How do you get one school getting 79 students with 15 points (or more) out of 140 candidates? This is 56% of the students getting the same top examination outcome. This is shameless grade inflation. Throughout the country, some schools have such results as 37, 25 or such large numbers of 15-pointers each. While these achievements must be celebrated and the students applauded, there is a problem.

How do you differentiate these multitudes of 15-pointer kids? The very top students (the superstars) are now hidden and buried among the 79, 37 and 25, for example. You cannot tell who they are. How do you get them scholarships or secure places for them into top universities such as Oxford, Harvard or Cambridge, when there are 1 000 students with 15 points from Zimbabwe? It is meaningless. You probably have to give them another examination to distinguish and differentiate them.

The 2019 Zimsec Advanced Level examination results do not follow a standard normal distribution curve. How do you get 56% of the students from one school obtaining the same top examination outcome? These results are a disservice to the best and brightest students. In fact, they are a disservice to all the students.

Grade inflation is not a good idea. I have received many requests from these students with 15 points or more from this year’s results, asking for opportunities at top universities across the world. While I congratulate the high achievers and I am excited for them, it is very tough to sell their outstanding results to great institutions outside Zimbabwe, because of the obvious and disgraceful grade inflation. Do you approach Oxford or Harvard with 1 000 such 15-pointers from Zimbabwe? It is a joke.

Why do we say this? When you present 1 000 students with 15 points from one country (obtained in one sitting) to a university like Oxford or Harvard, it is meaningless because the 1 000 students are not differentiated. You cannot tell who is in the top 10 or 20 among the 1 000 outstanding candidates. You put the top university in an invidious situation. They cannot admit them, and yet some of the 1 000 students would definitely qualify to study in these top and globally competitive programmes. However, you do not know who they are. You might have to give the 1 000 students another examination to rank them. This is the challenge that is presented by grade inflation.

Zimsec must sort out this mess
For sure, getting 35 points or 25 points is an indicator of differentiation. However, the standard Advanced Level Examination is three subjects. So, attaining 15 points from 3 subjects (3As) becomes the ultimate and uniform measure of the highest excellence. Yes, you can say the 35-pointer has differentiated himself or herself. Agreed. However, taking more than three subjects is not the standard format of the Advanced Level examination. Very few students do that. More importantly, when they do not take more than three subjects, that act/choice must not count against them in terms of excellence.

Now, how about the 1 000 with three As (who only took three subjects) each? Are they all equal? How do top universities choose the best among these 1 000 students? How do you differentiate these 1 000? Surely some of them are superstars who qualify to enter Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard or Stanford. But we cannot tell who they are from the 1 000. This is the challenge I am flagging which is occasioned by grade inflation.

Globally grade inflation is a well-known concept. There have been cases in African countries (e.g. Nigeria), the United States, and Europe. In the High School sector, the UK has been effectively grappling with it by having several private examination boards that compete, thus shaming and minimising the occurrence of this scourge.

In analysing the Zimsec outcomes, it is clear that certainly, our children are not getting too smart. That is not the issue. The problems are the standard of the examination, the marking systems and grading thereafter. It is a Zimsec problem. And no, the internet and its platforms such as Google or Wikipedia is not the issue. We just have to be creative, resourceful and imaginative examiners. Furthermore, our marking and grading must be sophisticated. Despite the advent of Google, proper exams can still be administered. Those who took Cambridge Advanced Level examination in 2019 do not have this grade inflation problem.

Our challenge is that we have one national, incompetently state-run, examination body. We need to rethink, reimagine and re-invent Zimsec. The key leaders and professional of this institution must understand the meaning and impact of grade inflation. In the UK, as already indicated, they have several privately run examination bodies that compete and thus mitigate and manage the occurrence of grade inflation.

By the way, once they are admitted into top global universities, students from our great country, generally distinguish themselves. With the tremendous and world-renowned Zimbabwean work ethic and drive, they usually take care of business. Sometimes, getting into these top schools is now the problem, and not performance once admitted. I sit on the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee. Getting the Rhodes Scholarship does NOT guarantee you a place at Oxford University. There is a separate application process into Oxford.

About five years ago, one of our two Rhodes Scholarship choices, a First Class Degree in Computer Science from UZ, could not get a place at Oxford University! They asked the selected Rhodes scholar to spend a year at the lower-ranked Brookes University (next door to Oxford) for a year, and prove himself first, then apply again to the University of Oxford.

Of course, the young man was shattered and humiliated. But he braved it, spent the year at Brookes, and eventually gained entrance into the University of Oxford. He is now a proud Oxonian. But can you imagine the ordeal and psychological trauma that the young man had to go through? Was it necessary?
Now, do you know why the University of Oxford did this to our Rhodes scholar? Because UZ gave a PhD to Grace Mugabe after three months, Oxford basically discounted the young man’s First Class to a Third!

These are the things we do to undermine our superstar students!

We ought to stop.

The Zimsec grade inflation is one step too far. We must protect the brand, opportunities and possibilities of all our students – the country’s future human capital – starting from Primary School, through High School, right up to Tertiary Education.

In case some might think that the Advanced Level examination grade inflation will only affect entry into elite or Ivy League schools like Harvard and Oxford; to the contrary, the issue will also negatively impact fair admission into local universities. Any examination that says 56% are equally Number One is meaningless. More importantly, such results are useless for university admission purposes. Forget Oxford and Harvard. Let us stay local. With these 1000 fifteen pointers, how are you going to decide who gets into UZ law or UZ Medicine? The 79 (15 pointers) kids from Pamushana and 15 pointers from one or two other schools can easily fill up those two programs. What will happen to other 15 pointers (from the 1 000) who also want to be enrolled in the two courses at UZ? What reason will you give them for not qualifying into these two programs at UZ?

Let us make the numbers do some more talking. Out of 1000 fifteen pointers, how many qualify for a Law Degree at UZ? Probably 300. How many qualify for a Degree in Medicine at UZ, probably 200. Assuming UZ Law takes 80 a year and Medicine 70 a year, there is a potential problem. How do you objectively select the 80 and 70, out of the 300 and 200 respectively? Are we going to apply subjective ad hoc terms which are most likely to disadvantage the poor and the unconnected?

The same above analysis can be made for departments at any of the other national tertiary institutions, be it NUST, MSU or Africa University. It is not just a question of whether we can absorb all these qualified students into Zimbabwean tertiary institutions, but rather ensuring fair and scientific admission into these universities based on meaningful results. Hence, you can disregard any reference to elite or Ivy League Schools — Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, etc. — or any foreign interests for that matter. Grade inflation is bad for Zimbabwe, period. The case against grade inflation has nothing to do with trying to please elite or Ivy League Schools. Don’t hide behind cheap, primitive and unsophisticated decolonisation or anti-imperialism arguments. We have been independent for 40 years and running our own education system in those years. As free Zimbabweans — proud Africans —we have created this problem. We must solve it to please ourselves and nobody else.

We must think again.

For the record, we are not necessarily challenging the quality of education acquired or the capacity of the students produced. We have not reached that stage, yet. I am just emphasising differentiation of the product. The product (our students) is fairly solid and can compete globally. Lack of differentiation damages the brand and deny the product opportunities to excel and flourish in Zimbabwe and beyond our borders. No one should be suffocated or disparaged for doing well. Neither should we grade for available opportunities. We just want meaningful examination results that we can use for university admission and other developmental purposes.

Furthermore, it is essential to posit that what we are addressing here is neither a problem of sheer absorption capacity nor the challenge of too many qualified students. Not at all. While those could be secondary concerns, they are not the issues at play at all, in this conversation. This discussion is about meaningful and fair absorption within the country. It is about effective interface with other jurisdictions academically. We need meaningful examination results, period. That there are too many or too few qualified students is a separate though essential conversation.

What is the way forward?

We need to rethink, re-engineer, re-imagine and redesign Zimsec. We need creative, resourceful and imaginative examiners, backed by sophistication in marking and grading. The lack of rigour and tenacity in both developing and grading the examinations are the key drivers of grade inflation. We need quality examiners who understand grade dynamics, all grounded in quality teaching and curriculum understanding. Zimsec must not tolerate inefficient and incompetent markers.

Curriculum development, teaching and the examinations, thereafter, must be anchored in learners’ pursuit of competencies such as problem-solving, learning how to learn, mastering how to think, and blended learning; all rooted in a multidisciplinary approach to education. We need to rethink, reimagine, re-engineer and redesign Zimsec. We need meaningful examination results which we can effectively use as a country and which also allow us to interface with other jurisdictions meaningfully. We must eliminate any elements of direct or indirect political interference which compromise the quality of our education system and its products. There should be no place for scoring cheap political mileage by awarding inflated grades. This is ruinous and detrimental to our children. We must protect the brand, opportunities and impact of our education products — our priceless human capital. In doing so, we can pick up lessons from other jurisdictions that have addressed the grade inflation challenge. Zimbabwe can fix this scourge. However, we must first accept that it exists. A problem realised is a problem half-solved.

We must jealously guard the globally renowned quality and efficacy of our entire education system from Primary School to Tertiary Education. We must find ways of restoring institutional and individual integrity, pride in good work ethics, discipline and quality work across the entire education sector.

Sorting out the mess and rot at Zimsec — the disgraceful and shameful grade inflation — is a national imperative.

Yes, we can solve this challenge in pursuit of our national interest.

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