Friday, 31 March 2017

Academic Integrity Under Threat

Going For the Big Bucks

Grade inflation is a real threat in education.  When the cash flow of a school depends upon the number of students enrolling and graduating, a substantial jeopardy emerges.  Moreover, when governments set "pass targets" the temptation to fudge the marks and pass rates becomes overwhelming, unless the internal ethics of the school are rock solid.  

It has been alleged that grade and pass rate inflation are rife in New Zealand tertiary institutions.
The Qualifications Authority has urged whistleblowers to come forward after allegations tertiary institutions are passing students who should be failed.  The teachers spoke to RNZ on condition of anonymity because they were worried they would lose their jobs if they were identified.  [Radio NZ]
Speaking out anonymously always gives us pause for thought.  It is, therefore, salutary of the NZ Qualifications authority to encourage anyone who had concerns to come forward to discuss them.  The initial impression is given that the practice is quite widespread.

Academic staff have told RNZ they have seen marks mysteriously awarded to failed students, been ordered to re-mark exams more leniently and told to apply lower standards to foreign students.  They said the practices were happening because institutions wanted to meet the high pass rates required by the government and to hang onto students who provided valuable income.

The Qualifications Authority has urged anyone with concerns about assessment practices in non-university tertiary education organisations to come forward so that it could investigate. . . . The academics spoke to RNZ on condition of anonymity, saying they feared they would lose their jobs if they were identified.

A university lecturer said he and his colleagues were ordered to re-mark hundreds of test papers after fewer than 50 percent of students passed a major exam.  He said they did it, but felt guilty doing so.
"You think 'oh yeah, maybe they had a potential half an idea about what that was about, maybe we can give them a mark', and you know you shouldn't but you do, and the pass rate went up somewhat."

A former polytechnic tutor said institutions were under pressure to meet government targets of 85 percent pass rates.  He said that was not realistic and it was prompting bad practices.  "One course I know there were students who got 35 percent overall and they pushed them up by 15 percent - they just added 15 percent."

The tutor said he also knew of a foreign student who failed a course twice but was then given credit for it using recognition of their prior experience and learning.  Another polytechnic tutor said managers at his institution had intervened to change students' results.  "I do know and have seen with my own eyes results that changed with no academic input. A student has failed a course and come back in the first term of the new year and the student has passed, so the mark has been changed by an administrative staff member."  The tutor said such behaviour was the exception rather than the rule, but it should not be happening at all.

And a university lecturer said universities and polytechnics were lowering their standards, especially for foreign students.  "I've been told these students need to be evaluated differently and to a lower standard. It's particularly a problem in courses and programmes at universities and polytechnics that are designed to capture international students.

Exactly what kinds of tertiary institutions were being referred to is not made clear.  The universities, which reflect the highest academic standards and who measure themselves against international competitors, have been quick to distance themselves from grade inflation.
The chairperson of Universities New Zealand, Stuart McCutcheon, said there was no evidence the problem was widespread.  "It's unfortunate that this is being represented as a huge problem based on relatively few anecdotes from people who are not identified either in terms of themselves, or their institutions," he said.

Professor McCutcheon said universities had generally been raising their entry standards and there was little incentive for them to dumb down their courses.  Doing so would harm their international reputation and make it more difficult to attract international students in the long-term, he said.

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