In 2007, the Danish high school (Gymnasium) was reformed, both with regards to grading and with regards to structure. I graduated high school in 2007, meaning I was marked on the old scale, but since I took a gap year, I entered university along with the first cohort of students marked on the new scale. An official scale for converting average marks was devised, and much was made of it’s fairness, and to be honest, I’ve never met anyone who had trouble due to the new scale.
At the same time as this, the gymnasium expanded in social scope: whereas in 2001 59% of students went on to some form of gymnasium (including the vocational varieties HTX and HHX), 71% went on to do so in 2012 – mostly at the cost of the vocational training. Naturally, a proportion of these students may be what we would call marginal students in term of academic aptitude – the gymnasium is the qualification required for entering most forms of tertiary education and the system is free (and students over the age of 18 receive a bursary).
This implies that everything else equal, we should expect the marks on average to fall when a larger proportion of a cohort enters. Similarly, the proportion of high marks (a 10, 11 or 13 on the old scale, a 10 or 12 on the new) should increase only slightly, since persons at this level of aptitude should have been expected to be well absorbed already at 59% of a cohort entering the system. But what really happened? Below is a picture of the development for the general gymnasium (STX). On the left, we see the proportion of high marks, on the right the average mark as recalculated using the official scale.
As can be seen, both increase. From 2005 to 2013, the proportion of marks that are in the high category increased by 71%. The average of marks increased much more slowly, but still indicative of mark inflation, giving what we should expect from the demographic considerations outlined above. In short, there is reason to suspect that the gymnasium is really suffering from mark inflation.
Why should we care? Since marks form the basis for university admittance, they directly impact life outcomes. In a situation with mark inflation, high marks become less informative, since they do not discriminate well among students. This means that mark inflation reduces the efficiency of using average marks as a way of allocating university placements.
I currently have a request for more complete data lodged with the bureau responsible for education statistics, so I hope that I will be able to revisit this more thoroughly.