The Leaving Cert is over. What happens to your exam script now?

Most students’ exam papers are being marked online in a system which authorities say reduces errors and speeds up turnaround times

For students, the ordeal is finally over. For examiners, the work is just beginning.

Some two million individual test items – including exam scripts, project work, research reports and portfolios – are being assessed by the State Examinations Commission (SEC). But what happens, exactly, to your exam paper once you hand it up to the superintendent?

What happens to my exam scripts?

The days of teachers lugging large bags of exam scripts home to mark are almost over.

For this year’s Leaving Cert, the vast majority of students’ scripts are being scanned and will be marked by examiners using an online marking system. The paper scripts, incidentally, will be retained. The SEC says its new online system helps reduce marking errors and speeds up turnaround times.

Who marks them?

The exams are marked by a team of more than 4,000 examiners, typically experienced teachers, who work under the overall direction of a chief examiner for each subject.

Examiners normally mark scripts from a number of schools and do not know either the region or the schools from which the papers they mark are drawn. The have sight only of exam centre numbers and candidate numbers, maintaining the anonymity of the system.

They are contracted for a period of 26 days. The number of scripts they mark varies considerably, ranging from as few as five a day for a complex Leaving Cert subject to about 25 a day for Junior Cycle papers.

How does the marking process work?

The marking process for each subject and level is typically overseen by a team consisting of the chief examiner, a chief advising examiner and a number of advising examiners, who monitor and advise the examiners.

The chief examiner and the advisory team discuss, test and adjust the draft marking scheme. This takes place at a “pre­ conference” that is normally of two days’ duration and takes place before the main marking conference for the full examining team.

All examiners attend an online training conference before marking. They then begin marking by selecting a random sample of scripts and applying the draft marking scheme to this sample. Feedback from the examiners, along with data from the marking of the random sample, is analysed by the chief examiner and senior advisory team. A minimum of 5 per cent of scripts marked by each examiner is monitored during the course of the marking.

Will grades be similar to last year?

Normally, exams are marked according to a “bell curve” which aims to ensure a similar proportion of students achieve the same proportion of H1s, H2s and H3s, etc, across individual subjects. This is aimed at ensuring standards are maintained each year.

But this year, things are different. The traditional bell curve no longer applies due to grade inflation in recent years, linked to more generous teacher-assessed grades. The Government has pledged that this year’s grades on aggregate will be “no lower” than last year.

This will be achieved using a “postmarking intervention” which will lift students’ marks, if necessary. (Interestingly, authorities have pledged not to lower students’ marks if they exceed last year’s levels which, in theory, could lead to even higher marks.)

Average grades achieved in the 2021 higher level Leaving Cert exams are estimated to be about 17 per cent in advance of the normal pre-pandemic grades, or an average of about 60 CAO points.

When will results be available?

Leaving Cert results are due to issue on Friday, September 2nd, almost three weeks later than the traditional mid-August release date. The SEC says this is due to a shortage of examiners, the running of deferred exams for Covid reasons which get under way this Thursday and the work involved in ensuring grades are no lower than last year.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent