If Minister for Education Norma Foley hadn’t realised she had a battle on her hands in progressing her plan for teacher-based assessment as part of wider Leaving Cert reforms, she knew all about after this year’s Easter conference circuit.
Some of the impassioned comments when the proposals were debated by teaching unions at their annual gatherings included – “Teacher-based assessment is a red line issue”; “it will do untold damage to assessment”; “we need to ballot for strike action immediately”.
Foley’s plans, announced last year, envisaged that 40 per cent of students’ marks would be based on project work, oral exams or practicals which would be marked by teachers and externally moderated by the State Examinations Commission (SEC). The remaining 60 per cent would be based on traditional written exams.
On Wednesday, the Minister shelved plans for teachers to assess this work, citing the need to study the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the integrity of the assessment process for school-based work. Instead, these continual assessment components will be assessed by the State Examinations Commission.
So, why have the plans been shelved? Does it really matter who assesses project work? And will it undermine any of the Leaving Cert reforms being planned?
The age-old criticism of the Leaving Cert is that its heavy emphasis on high-stakes written exams over a few weeks in June causes a negative backwash in teaching and learning, with too much focus on “teaching to the test”.
A review of the senior cycle by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment acknowledged as much and said there were “unacceptable levels of stress” in the run-up to exams. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also noted that the Leaving is “too narrow and rigid” for Ireland’s aspirations of delivering a learning experience to the highest international standards.
The argument behind including teachers in assessment for the Leaving Cert is that educators are best-placed to make widespread use of broad and balanced continual assessment of their students. It is a practice that occurs internationally.
For example, a recent international review on the use of teacher-assessed grades during the pandemic found that it reduced anxiety and stress and allowed use of other assessment approaches.
Some education experts say Foley’s decision to “defer” the teacher assessment element of planned reforms may limit the extent to which students can be assessed in a meaningful way on a continual basis.
The “AI” threat will inevitably be seen by some, therefore, as a timely cover for shelving what looked set to be acrimonious reforms.
After all, students’ project work – which will now be assessed by the SEC – is just as liable to cheating using AI than work assessed by teachers. If anything, teachers would be better placed to spot cheating if work from a student exceeds their normal standards.
Foley, meanwhile, argues that that wider reforms aimed at easing pressure on students remain intact and that she has “accelerated” plans to introduce revised subjects where up to 40 per cent of marks can be gathered using continual assessment from 2025, two years earlier than scheduled.
She is, sources say, determined to press ahead with wider changes such as establishing “network schools” which will pilot subjects such drama, film and theatre studies; and climate action and sustainable development.
This is the second reversal to Ms Foley’s senior cycle reform plans. She “deferred” plans for fifth year students to take paper one of the English and Irish exams before going into sixth year. That plan – also aimed at reducing pressure on students – was dropped in the face of opposition from teachers’ unions and others.
If this latest development goes to shows anything, it is how the Leaving Cert – for all its flaws – is so deeply embedded in our education system that reforming it is far easier said than done.