50 shades of Grade…..Measuring students worth

I don’t often write specifically about the market that I am most closely involved, that of accountancy training and education. But there does seem to be an anomaly in the way the accountancy world measure success that isn’t the case in many other professions and examinations.

To become a qualified accountant in the UK (ACCA, ICAEW,CIMA etc,  yes there are more) you have to pass a number of demanding examinations and submit evidence of practical experience. The exams are taken over 3 years and everything rests on a number of exams of 100 marks each, of which you need to get 50%. The pass rate for accountancy students varies from paper to paper but is around 60% In training and education terms these exams are often referred to as High stake exams. For some failure is not simply a setback in terms of time, it could result in a lost job.

50% good – 49% bad

The purpose of such exams (including the practical experience) is of course to ensure that those that pass are competent. But how competent….?  It seems that you are either competent or not, if you get 49% you are not competent, if you get 50% then you are. This makes the margin for error very high, many a career has taken a dramatic turn based on 1 mark. Now of course in any exam there has to be a point where someone succeeds and another fails but does competence not have many shades to it, is it not a continuous process rather than a discreet one.

Shades of Grade

You may be one of thousands of students (>300,000 actually) who have just had your A level results. But of course you don’t just pass or fail, in fact this has not been the case since 1963, even before then there was an indication of the mark. You are given a grade from A through to E and all are considered a pass, 98.1% passed their A levels this year.

And the grades refer to the marks e.g. E is 40%, a D is 50%, a C is 60%, a B is 70% and an A is 80%. A similar grading exists for Degrees, 2.1, 2.2 etc and for Law exams, Pass, Commendation, Distinction.

No pressure for excellence

So why is this not the case in accountancy? To be honest I am not sure. But by introducing grades above a pass you not only provide employers with a better indication of competency, you encourage colleges to teach to a higher and deeper level, motivated by the students who want to learn more. And that for me is the most important point; you create an incentive for students to try harder. At the moment if you are scoring 55% then why put in more work, a pass is a pass, but a distinction well that will make you stand out from the crowd.

Of course the market will adjust its perception of what a pass means, for example employers may only want students with a distinction rather than a simple pass, but they have always looked and will continue to look for differentiation, at least this is a meaningful one.

What it does not do is fix the 49% you fail problem, and careers will still hinge on 1 mark, but that unfortunately is the way with exams and the reason exam technique is so important.

So to all the accountancy examining bodies why not introduce grades – grey is good and isn’t it an accountants favourite colour?

3 thoughts on “50 shades of Grade…..Measuring students worth

  1. Pingback: 50 Shades Darker – How much to test | Pedleysmiths's Blog

  2. Hello Stuart,

    I have recently completed all my ACCA exams so just wanted to share my thoughts on why accountancy exams are not graded.

    At uni or school everyone seating exams are in average of similar age and would have be probably studying full time, also would probably have similar level of language proficiency on the subject their studying. It is not a case with accountancy exams. Most of us study part time and have full time jobs. I’ve sat my exams while working full time and having a toddler son, some exams I sat when I was 8 months pregnant. As you can imagine I’ve past most of my exams by scoring just over 50% mainly because I simply didn’t have enough time for revising. I know most of my colleagues at work have the same issues. I think therefore grading will not be fair because people studying full time have an advantage over those who don’t have that luxury of time.

    Grade itself in a profession to me doesn’t make sense, what matters are a commitment for continues development and as you know CPDs are not scored at all.

    I had once failed with 49 score, that was painful but again as you said 1 mark here or there doesn’t really matter, life is tough 🙂

    Best regards,


    • Nurgul thanks for your comments. I am not suggesting that anything should be taken away from those that get 50% and I do share your concerns that it may lead to a type of grade inflation that we have seen with A levels e.g. passing is no longer good enough and as such not valued. That said as long as the boundaries are dealt with in broad terms, perhaps as with Law, pass, commendation and distinction. The integrity of the pass should remain intact.
      One example as to how this could be achieved is by making sure only a few are given a commendation, say 2% and perhaps it should be stated as to what skills they demonstrated rather than simply that their mark was high.

      Ps congratulations on passing your ACCA exams, you should be very proud


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s