Cancelling oral and practical exams the fairest decision for the most students 3 months ago

Cancelling oral and practical exams the fairest decision for the most students

The students were at the heart of this decision.

In Government Buildings yesterday, with the assembled media observing social distancing and seated more sparsely than a 9am lecture on a Monday morning, Minister for Education Joe McHugh informed Third and Sixth Year students, and their teachers and parents, that all oral and practical exams for this year were cancelled. Not only that, but all students will be awarded full marks for that segment of the exam.

Though the news was somewhat expected, when looked at in isolation, like so many other stories in recent weeks, it is huge.

There will be ramifications for this year's results, last year's and next year's students, college places, Primary School teachers, places at NUI colleges and many, many more. For example, all Irish and Music students are now guaranteed to pass the subject, before even entering an exam hall. But perhaps the most important line in the entire briefing almost got lost in the flurry of questions and tweets, and it came from Minister McHugh, a former teacher himself:

"This decision has the welfare of students at its heart. No student will score less."

That much was clear in the way Minister McHugh spoke. He spoke the initial announcement to the students directly. He addressed their concerns, noting that this is a generation that worries about the world around them.

He praised their resourcefulness, their creativity and their resilience. He reserved mention for the teachers and the SNAs attempting to teach students from home as the first full week of school closures comes to a close. This was a decision not taken lightly, and while some students are understandably upset and feel aggrieved at the awarding of full marks in these exams, this was the fairest decision for the most students.

If you explore the possible options available to Minister McHugh and the Department, that becomes a little more obvious.

They could have chosen to cancel the exams entirely, and remove them from consideration in the final exam results. That would render null and void the work already gone in by students, as well as placing undue pressure on a terminal written exam. It would be unfair on students for whom the practical element of a subject, be that cooking in Home Ec, speaking a language or playing an instrument, is their strong suit. So removing them from consideration entirely wasn't really a viable, or fair, option.

The Department could have chosen to postpone them, and reschedule them at a later date, potentially around the time of the exams themselves in June. If you sat the Leaving Cert or old Junior Cert exam, you'll remember just how intense that period can be. Adding in extra exams, and a whole other dimension of preparation and study, into that fortnight would be completely unfair on students already pushed to the pin of their collar.

While Minister McHugh insisted yesterday that they are planning with the original dates of the exams in June in mind, the uncertainty around them meant that postponing the exams wasn't an option. The idea of focusing students' minds now on the written exam, rather than an oral or practical that may or may not option, gives some clarity in an uncertain time.

Another option available would have been for teachers to provide 'expected grades' for individual students. These may have been based on Mock exam results or grades over previous years. This would be unworkable for a couple of reasons. While there is something similar available at Junior Cycle level, where students complete Classroom Based Assessments (CBAs) in Second and Third Year, there is a huge amount of time spent ensuring these are graded to a consistent standard across the country.

Clear marking guidelines are given to teachers, who then conduct a Subject Learning and Assessment Review (SLAR) meeting within their own department to ensure grades have been fairly awarded. There is no such framework at Leaving Cert level, and to try implement one now would be nearly impossible. It's also worth nothing that these CBA grades for Junior Cycle are kept entirely separate from the final grade, so as not to compromise the state certificate awarded.

The decision taken yesterday is not ideal, and in some cases it is not fair. There will be high-achieving students across the country who feel hard done by, and perhaps rightly so. There will be talented linguists, musicians and chefs who will feel this is unfair, and again they are justified. State exams are difficult periods at the best of times, but to be undertaking them while the world is almost at a halt due to a pandemic is, frankly, incredible. The decision taken by Minister McHugh was perhaps the only viable option available in the circumstances, and the one that looks after all students in the fairest possible way.