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Grade distribution
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Grade distribution

Due to different cultural and academic traditions, European educational systems have developed not only different national grading scales but also different ways of using them within the same country, in different subject areas or institutions. While it is essential to acknowledge these differences, it is also important to make them transparent within the European Higher Education Area, so that grades awarded in all countries, subject areas or institutions can be properly understood and correctly compared.

Mobile students have the right to fair treatment and to transparency of their grades when credits are transferred from one institution to another, as access to further studies, grants or other benefits may depend on their level of performance. Transparency of performance levels is equally important for graduates applying for a job in their own or in another country.

To ensure transparent and coherent information on the performance of the individual student, each HEI should provide – in addition to their national/institutional grading scale and an explanation of the scale – a statistical distribution table of the passing grades awarded in the programme or field of study attended by the student (grade distribution table) showing how the grading scale is actually used in that programme. The grade distribution table was first introduced in the ECTS Users’ Guide in 2009, as a replacement for the previous ECTS grading scales (A, B, C, D, E), which are not used anymore.

Even in cases when transferring the grades is not necessary in the local academic tradition of receiving institutions, calculating a grade distribution table will facilitate fair treatment of the incoming students on their return to the sending institution. It should be noted that it is also good practice to provide internal boards of examiners with detailed statistical data on examination grading in order to make the process more transparent and indicate any disparities which may indicate issues for further consideration.

Partners in joint degree programmes should agree in advance within their consortium how they will deal with grading and transfer of grades.

Grade distribution tables show how the existing national or institutional scale is being used in the institution – whether in open access or selective systems – and allow for comparison with the statistical distribution of grades in a parallel reference group of another institution. They represent the statistical distribution of positive grades (pass and above) awarded in each field of study in a specific institution. It is important to provide additional information on success rates at the same level of aggregation, but these should not be used for transfer.

Grade distribution tables have to be developed in a standardised format for reference groups of students enrolled in degree programmes belonging to the same field of studies. Such groups should be of reliable size in terms of number of students and number of years considered.

Calculating the grade distribution tables is a task that in many institutions will be undertaken at centralised level. The production of distribution tables should not cause undue difficulties in institutions as the required data are generally available in institutional information systems and the calculation of percentages is easily done with simple software. It only requires the following steps:

  1. Identify the reference groups within your institution by using objective and transparent criteria which should be attached to the grade distribution tables produced. In the absence of methods based on comparable learning outcomes, it is recommended to use the ISCED-F classification which offers a standardised and hierarchical classification of fields of study. In order to have reference groups that are large enough for a statistically relevant comparison, it is recommended to use an ISCED code at the “narrow” or ‘detailed’ levels (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2014)
  2. Calculate the absolute number of passing grades awarded to each reference group identified in at least the last two years. Remember that information on success rates may be provided in general terms but not in this calculation.
  3. Calculate the grade distribution in terms of percentages of the passing grades awarded to the reference group and develop cumulative percentages. As a result, there will be a grade distribution table with percentages and cumulative percentages for each reference group identified.

 

The following is an illustrative example of a grading table:

Grades used in 
institution (from 
highest to lowest 
passing grade)*

Number of passing 
grades awarded to the
reference group

Percentage of each 
grade with respect
to the total passing 
grades awarded

Cumulative
percentage of 
passing grades 
awarded

10

50

5%

5%

9

100

10%

15%

8

350

35%

50%

7

300

30%

80%

6

200

20%

100%

Total

1,000

100%

 

* Grading systems/approaches may be established at national level.

When included in a student’s Transcript of Records and Diploma Supplement, the table will facilitate the interpretation of each grade awarded and will not require any further calculation. The on-going European Grade Conversion System project (EGRACONS) is developing examples for the visual presentation of a grading table.