Now That’s What We Call Grade Inflation

By Sean Cavanagh — July 14, 2008 2 min read
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On occasion, you hear about systematic cheating, academic fraud, or gamesmanship in U.S. classrooms. Sometimes it gets blamed on the pressure school administrators face to boost students’ test scores, or simply on an educator’s or coach’s desire to single out a student for special treatment. But if you want a look at educational impropriety on an entirely different scale, check out this story in today’s Washington Post, which touches on the apparently endemic corruption in Russia’s schools.

The article focuses on the scope and impact of bribery in Russia today—and on President Dmitri Medvedev’s vow to stamp it out.

The article opens with an account of Russian university students paying off a professor to let them out of having to complete necessary coursework before taking a final exam—with more cash buying a better grade on the test—and goes from there, offering myriad other examples of everyday graft.

Here’s the truly stunning passage from the story, from an education standpoint:

“In the Russian education system alone, about $1 billion is paid each year in bribes to secure entry and pass exams, according to Mark Levin, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who has studied the phenomenon. Levin estimated that unqualified students, depending on the reputation of the school, pay between $500 and $20,000 for admission to a university. Most of those students, he said, continue to pay bribes to pass exams and to emerge with diplomas.”

The article makes the point that bribery has a deep impact on society, weakening the public’s confidence in law enforcement, civil service, even the medical profession. It seems only natural that corruption has worked its way into Russia’s schools.

A couple years ago, I wrote about how the children of immigrants—specifically, the sons and daughters of those who had arrived in the United States on H1B visas—were among the top performers in American math and science academic competitions. The author of a study on that phenomenon said that many of those families were driven to succeed in the U.S. system partly because they regarded it favorably, as a meriotocracy, where students are judged on their ability and work ethic. That contrasted with the situation in some of their home countries, where political connections, societal status, or other factors often determined whether a student gets into a school or college.

I’d be curious to hear opinions on whether the corruption described in this story is having a similarly corrosive effect on the ambitions of Russian students, and on how they perceive the benefits of education in their country.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.