"This is devastating for me" - uncertainty clouds Leaving Cert proposal
Clarity at last, in some shape or form.
Reports emerged on Thursday night that the Leaving Cert will be cancelled and replaced by a predicted grade system. It seems to bring to an end weeks of uncertainty around the exams, after its Junior Cycle counterpart was scrapped a few weeks ago.
But what happens now? We have heard quite a lot from the students who wanted the exams to be cancelled, and with good reason. But the phrase "predicted grades" can mean a lot of things, and as with so many things at the moment, this is entirely uncharted waters.
What are the potential issues and pitfalls of this reported decision? How do students feel about this new uncertainty brought upon them?
The biggest anger and confusion seems to be around the reported model of how grades will be decided.
According to the Irish Times, schools will play a key role in determining these grades, based on a number of factors, including class rankings and performance in previous exams. This process will be overseen by principals and senior management, and will then feed into a process to ensure that the "bell-curve", or national average, is adhered to and there is no grade inflation (or deflation) from previous years.
The first thing to point out is that this sounds similar in principle to the current system already in place in the new Junior Cycle for "Classroom Based Assessments", or CBAs.
In these, students are marked by their teachers using a set of criteria and given a provisional grade. All teachers for the year in the subject in that school then undertake a Subject Learning and Assessment Review, or SLAR, where it is ensured that students are marked fairly across the school and to the national set of standards. These, however, do not affect the final grade given, but are recorded separately.
"Predicted grades" have been used in the past in the Leaving and Junior Cert. 148 students were awarded estimated grades based on communication with their schools in last year's State Exams, due to reasons including lost papers or wrong papers being distributed.
There are a number of potential problems, however. Some students have pointed to the lack of anonymity, and the potential for unfair grades based on personal relationships with teachers. There is also concern around the sharp rise in points most students achieve in the final weeks of the year. Mock Exams, for example, have become a subject of focus online as a poor reflection of students' abilities, which is correct.
One Sixth Year student who contacted JOE asked why a different approach wasn't taken.
"I agree that it would have been difficult to hold exams but surely predicted grades aren't the best option," they said.
"CAT exams, interviews, personal essays combined with predictive grades would be fair more effective. I know personally I feel lost and even a bit left behind with this decision... We have no opportunity to work and achieve our dreams and goals ourselves. Our right to even be given a chance to decide what our future will hold has been stripped away from us."
There are also concerns around assigning grades to students who have had difficult school years due to illness or other reasons. One concerned parent contacted us about this concern, and said "there must be fairness, there must be some chance of normality, opportunity to start universities in some 'normal' window".
How will these grades fall in line with other years? A lot of the narrative around the Leaving Cert has been based around their usage in the CAO system and students applying to third-level institutions. This is problematic in itself; the Leaving Cert and school itself should be about much more than a points race decided by demand and supply. However, it is a genuine concern for the roughly two thirds of Leaving Cert students who will go on to further education.
There is a mention of adhering to the bell-curve in the report last night from the Irish Times, which suggests this may not be as big a concern as some have mentioned. It in fact could be fairer than what the system might have been had it proceeded with written papers and full marks for orals and practicals, as previously mooted.
Every corrector of State Exams is assigned a supervisor, who quality checks a portion of each set of papers and ensures they are being done to the correct standard. However, they also ensure the bell-curve is adhered to, and often markers are asked to return to borderline grades and see if they should be higher or lower than what was previously given.
How will this work in this new system? Who will ensure that these students don't end up at an advantage, or disadvantage, to previous or future years?
One Leaving Cert student from 2019 contacted JOE to ask this exact question; "I'm really really concerned about what way students who have completed exams last year and are applying for their courses this year are going to be dealt with? Our exams and this year's exams are NOT THE SAME!
"We are being judged on two completely different things, how can they possibly include us, who have already got grades, against students who are getting predicted grades and have full marks in orals?... I know that if my results were based on predicted grades I would have been awarded higher marks in two subjects (at least) as the papers didn’t go my way on the day."
There are also issues surrounding students repeating the Leaving Cert, students sitting "extra" subjects externally and subjects without previous grades to go off.
Students repeating the Leaving Cert may be doing so in a one-year course in an institution that has no access to previous results, and have no in-depth knowledge of a student's ability. Students taking a subject outside of the school setting will also require grades, who will provide these? If it is a private tutor, who will oversee this?
As well as this, there are subjects which are much "newer" than others. For example, Politics and Society was sat for the first time in 2018. Physical Education will be sat for the first time this year. With little or no previous data to go off, how can students' grades be fairly adjudged?
One JOE reader contacted us as a repeat Leaving Cert student, having returned to sit one subject again 11 years later.
"I’m repeating an exam this year as I want to start a masters (PME) in primary teaching in September, I’m an external candidate and so I’m not in school. I’m resitting higher level Irish to meet the requirements for the course, so basically I have no idea how predicted grades would affect me.
"There has been no reference about people who are sitting exams independently outside of schools... So the question is, will external candidates who are repeating an exam to fulfil the requirements to enter a masters degree be accommodated? And how so?"
Another student had similar concerns: "I’m repeating the Leaving Cert this year. I had to repeat in a new school, they barely know me and I have to study some of my subjects on my own as they don’t have them.
"Predicted grades won’t work for me and I can’t repeat again. This is devastating for me."
Finally, concerns must be raised also about the stress and pressures this decision will put classroom teachers in. Now, parents and students have direct access to (and relationships with) the person responsible for assigning their Leaving Cert grade.
Teachers have, in recent weeks since the schools shut, been teaching their pupils remotely and attempting to maintain some semblance of normality for students, with focus on Leaving Cert pupils. This decision puts a huge strain on them as well, which must be considered.
One teacher contacted JOE with such a concern: "As a teacher I'm very worried about the implications on teachers regardless of what will happen, the finger inevitably will be pointed at teachers."
The proposal reported last night is due to be brought before Cabinet today, meaning we may have further clarity this evening. The concerns above will need to be addressed, and student welfare will need to be at the heart of any decisions made.
The Leaving Cert is a tough enough year without also dealing with a global pandemic, and students' mental wellbeing must be made paramount at this point.