ZIMSEC grade inflation: A disgraceful and shameful

I HAVE seen press reports about this years’ Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examination results all over the place. I want to congratulate all the students, schools and teachers who excelled. Congratulations!

However, on the 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 students? This is 56 percent 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 in 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 a thousand 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 percent of the students from one school get 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 a lot of 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 a thousand such 15-pointers from Zimbabwe? It is a joke.

Why do I say this? When you present a thousand students with 15 points from one country (obtained in one sitting) to a university like Oxford or Harvard, it is meaningless because the thousand students are not differentiated. You cannot tell who is in the top 10 or 20 among the thousand outstanding students. You put the top university in an invidious situation. They cannot admit them, and yet some of the thousand 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 thousand 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 three 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. And 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 thousand with three As (who only took three subjects) each? Are they all equal? How do top universities choose the best among these thousand students? How do you differentiate these thousand? Surely some of them are superstars who qualify to enter Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard or Stanford. But we cannot tell who they are from the thousand. This is the challenge presented by grade inflation that I am flagging.

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. Those who took Cambridge Advanced Level examinations in 2019 do not have this grade inflation problem.

Inflated grades? … An analysis of the top ranking schools in the Ordinary Level exams

Our challenge is that we have one national (incompetently state-run) examination body. We need to rethink, reimagine and re-invent ZIMSEC. They must understand the meaning and impact of grade inflation. In the UK, as already indicated, there 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 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 the University of Zimbabwe 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 shuttered and humiliated. But he braved it, spent the year at Brookes, and eventually gained entrance into 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.

We must protect the brand, opportunities and possibilities for all our students, the country’s future human capital, starting from Primary School, through High School right up to tertiary education.

Sorting out the mess at ZIMSEC – the disgraceful and shameful grade inflation – is a national imperative.

Arthur Mutabara is Zimbabwe’s former deputy prime minister and an Oxford graduate