Students give failing marks to current grading system

The 7-point grading system was implemented in 2008 and has led to rocketing GPAs and tougher admission into university, critics argue

With the grade point averages (GPAs) rocketing among the nation’s upper-secondary students, university admission into seven different fields this year required a GPA of 11 or more. Two years ago, only one did. The Copenhagen Post acquired figures from the Education Ministry that show that average grades across the board have increased by about 0.3 since the implementation of the new 7-point grading scale, which replaced the old 13-point grading system six years ago. 

Many education experts and students are critical of the new grading system and give it a less than favourable mark.

Their criticism comes after the Education Ministry earlier this year released its five-year evaluation of the grading system. The evaluation gives the 7-point scale a passing grade, but concludes that it is not without its difficulties. 

Rasmus Markussen, a spokesperson for the national student association Danske Studerendes Fællesråd, was involved in making the evaluation report and is highly critical of the current grading scale.

“If I would have to give it a grade, I would give it a four,” said Markussen. “It hasn’t fulfilled its goal of creating opportunities for Danish students abroad, and there are signs that indicate that it doesn’t foster improvement in students.” 

When the seven-point grading scale was introduced, proponents argued that replacing the old 13-point system would bring Denmark into line with the rest of Europe and give Danish students a change to get top marks, further enabling them to get into foreign universities. With GPAs from the country’s secondary schools shooting through the roof, the latter goal has been achieved, but the former raises some questions.

Among the problems the Education Ministry listed in its report were the lack of nuance in grading due to the small number of grades, disagreement over the role of the top mark of 12, the wide gap between individual grades, and the difficulty of translating it into other grading systems.

According to the report, many educators and moderators feel that the small number of grades hinders providing a nuanced differentiation between students, especially at the top end of the scale. 

“It only stands to reason that if you have a smaller scale to judge by, it becomes more difficult to differentiate between very good students and the best of the best,” said Peter Allerup, a professor at the department of education at Aarhus University.

The scale was set up to co-ordinate with the ECTS, a European grading system established to make it easier to compare grades between countries. Allerup, however, said the Danish scale falls short.

“It is especially the big jump between seven and ten that causes problems in comparing it to other systems,” he said. 

Allerup explained that Denmark is the only country where such big numerical differences exist between grades.  

The other main difference is the fact that the ECTS scale is based on letters, not numbers like the Danish one.

According to Allerup, this causes a problem due to the fact that while in Europe students get evaluated on the amount of A, B, etc marks they have received, in Denmark students get evaluated based on an average mark.

“So what do you get when you get an 8.2 GPA? You get rounded down to a seven [or a C on the ECTS scale].”

Students seem to share Allerup’s concern, and Markussen argues that the scale is counterproductive when it come to motivating and fostering improvement in students.

That, he argues, is due to the large, and sometimes unequal, gaps between grades, which  can mean that one low grade can significantly drag down a student’s average.

Students weren’t consulted

Markussen was also quite critical of the report itself, which he feels avoided several of the main issues with the grading system and took no notice of how the students themselves feel about it. 

“I think it was a huge mistake not to talk to the students and see how they felt about the scale,” he said. 

The Education Ministry disagreed with the criticism and said the scale has fulfilled its purpose. 

“The grading system was based on the ECTS system and has just as many grades overall, and just as many passing grades,” said the senior advisor for the Education Ministry, Erik Nexelmann. “We have also noticed that teachers and moderators feel more secure in giving grades since there is now less doubt about what different grades mean.” 

According to the ministry’s own report, however, there still seems to be some confusion about the use of the new 12 grade. Some graders see the 12 mark as the intended top mark where “small mistakes” are accepted, while others see a 12 as a perfect grade similar to the old 13 number.   

“It is incredibly problematic that the scale isn’t used in the same way”, said Markussen. “One’s grades shouldn’t be like a lottery, where your grades are dependant on who your teacher happens to be.”

According to Markussen, the fault lies with the Education Ministry, which he said ought to have made it clearer to examiners how the scale is supposed to function.

Nexelmann concedes that there is still work to be done in getting teachers and moderators out of the mentality of the old system. 

“We have to admit that there are still some things to fix and that any misunderstanding about the use of the scale must be eliminated,” he said. “It must be understood that the 12 grade is not an exceptional grade, but a top mark.”  

Coupon education

Allerup says that a bigger issue – more so than the effect the 7-point grading scale has had on GPAs – is the awarding of bonus points to students who apply for a university degree within two years of finishing upper-secondary school.

“I am completely against giving these bonus points,” he said. “It is like handing out educational coupons.” 

Concerns about the bonus grades are shared by students, and Markussen believes that the system is unfair.

“It is a very negative thing; it pumps up the grades and just because you start your degree within two years does not make you more qualified,” said Markussen. “We believe that the system should be abolished and it is a shame really that it hasn’t happened.” 

Markussen added that not everyone voluntarily decides to take two years, and that some might have to delay going to university due to personal reasons.

The government’s rationale behind the bonus points was to encourage students to make a quicker transition between upper secondary education and universities. 

Educational rut 

According to Allerup, the grading system and the bonus grade points are just symptoms of a greater issue plaguing the educational system as a whole. 

“We need to get more professional evaluation of the entire system. I am not a fan of using standardised methods like the PISA test, but we should get some professional academics from major universities to re-evaluate the system.” 

Allerup argues that over the years educational standards have been falling, and that the implementation of school funding based on the number of students who pass has devaluated the quality of education in the country. 

“It isn’t talked about loudly within the schools, but is a known fact that fewer people flunk than before. I can also tell from personal experience as a teacher that the mathematical capabilities of students have fallen over the years.” 

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