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Boxing, curling and big data – are there answers to grade inflation?


Here is a multiple choice question for you:

The 90 in the photo may represent:
           A. very high achievement at some university courses
           B. the passing mark at some university courses
           C. the score of the losing boxer who was dominated by the opponent but not knocked down
           D. all of the above

Successful test takers will choose ‘D. all of the above’, even if they are unsure, since statistically that is the correct answer in questions when the test maker is running out of ideas.

In Alberta, right now there is a great deal of controversy over grade inflation. Let’s see if we can make some sense out of the controversy. If you think that a specific mark is sacrosanct, think again. Let’s take another look at the multiple-choice question above. Choice A is correct when a bell-curve of marks allows for ranking of the students. Choice B becomes the best answer in a course where it is desirable that everyone involved has mastered the curriculum. I don’t want my surgeon, dentist or airline pilot to be only 65% competent. Under these circumstances, a standard is set and the testing ensures that students reach the criteria. The same 90 means something completely different to a boxer. Boxing is scored on a system called the 10-point must. The boxer who dominates the round scores a 10. The fighter who loses the round is awarded a 9 unless they are knocked down, in which case they would be awarded an 8. If a boxer was dominated for all ten rounds, but remained on their feet for the entire contest they would score 90. So in this case we see that far from being excellent, a boxer scoring a 90 is the equivalent of being shut-out.

Student evaluation can be a big data science. To create this big data though requires big numbers of students. A classroom teacher might think they have a large class, but even a group of 40 students is not going to produce big data. The classroom teacher applies a marking rubric on the objectives in the curriculum (program of studies). All students then have a clear idea of what they must accomplish to achieve a specific grade. Is it possible for all students in a class to achieve a standard of excellence? Of course it is! You know what you must do to keep your boss or customers happy. You make sure it gets done. Science fair judges over the next few weeks will be using rubrics to establish project scores at regional science fairs during science fair season throughout Alberta.

But here is the big data secret. When dealing with the very large numbers like those of a province-wide exam, there are ways to manipulate the outcome. Questions are developed and field-tested to have known levels of difficulty. The test is then built so that both the test average and the number of students who score a level of excellence can be accurately predicted and thus manipulated.

As I was watching this year’s Brier championship curling game, an analogy occurred to me. Imagine that a classroom teacher tells the students that they can achieve a level of excellence if they throw a rock over the hog line, but short of the house. They practice and practice and ultimately take the test. All achieve the level of excellence. Now comes the provincial test. Throughout the province, rocks are thrown, but this time the officials don’t paint on the hog line until all the rocks are thrown. When it is put in place the average rock has only reached 65% of the line. Very few have reached the level of excellence. You can bet that the next year’s students will shoot for that imaginary line closer to the house. That means the requirements for the level of excellence increase each year. The same is true of the diploma exams. While the average remains as designed at 65%, each year the exams become marginally more difficult.

Is there a solution to this conundrum? We do need an external exam to help rank students determined to pursue limited spaces in post-secondary educational institutions. Some commenters have suggested a move to university entrance exams. The province could still play a role administering these exams but would not need to have all students challenge the exam. Alternately, and returning to the rubric model, there could be competency exams with achievable standards that reflect the knowledge that all students should have leaving high school.

All I know for sure is that the controversy over grade inflation and what our students learn is a battle that is going to go on for some time. Getting into the fight will surely lead to scoring only a nine.

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Boxing, curling and big data – are there answers to grade inflation?

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