Are some students unfairly treated in State exams marking process?

Claim exam scripts close to ‘grade boundaries’ deliberately manipulated up or down

Are some students unfairly losing out on marks in the State exams?

It’s a question many students and parents will be asking in light of new disclosures about how Junior and Leaving Cert exams are marked.

Earlier this week, The Irish Times reported details of an internal State Examinations Commission (SEC) research paper which concluded the marking process is rushed, unfair and risks compromising the accuracy of students' grades.

These concerns stem from the way marks for individual questions are altered to ensure up to 100,000 students achieve grades broadly consistent from year to year.


Today, a number of examiners involved in marking exams have cast light on what they say is an entirely separate practice used to alter grades.

Well-placed sources say it involves targeting selected exam scripts which have been previously marked with the specific intent of changing the grades up or down.

The aim is to make final adjustments to the proportion of grades at a point when it too late to adjust the marking schemes for all the scripts.

Let’s say John has scored 90 per cent or a H1 grade in his exam.

However, exam authorities find there are too many H1 grades and they need more H2s.

Instead of revising the marking scheme, an examiner is directed to select a number of scripts in the 90-91 per cent grade boundary with a view to reducing them to H2 grades.

‘Inherently unfair’

One experienced examiner, who declined to be named, accepted the process was “inherently unfair” because of the targeted way marks for selected scripts are revised.

“I’ve had scripts where on a Friday they were As or H1s, but by the Monday they became Bs after I was told to revise marks,” said the examiner.

“It happens late into the marking process. So if they need, say, 10 fewer H1s, you find 10 scripts close to the grade boundary in your bag and you drag them downwards . . . It is handled quite aggressively in the final days because it’s too late to change the marking scheme.

“It’s not right, of course, but it becomes normalised very quickly. Equally, it can work the other way and if there are too many fails, you get instructed to drag a certain number up to pass.”

Another examiner said this leads to “spiking”, with a high proportion of exam results just inside the grade boundary for certain subjects.

Appeals process

The volume of scripts selectively upgraded or downgraded depends on the emerging profile of grades in a subject, according to sources. In a large exam, however, sources say the numbers affected can be very significant.

In a statement, the SEC rejected claims that this practice takes place in any part of the operating procedures or practice for the marking of the State examinations.

It said the “open and transparent nature of the appeals process would shine an immediate light on this” as students would see this in their marked scripts

But another source with close knowledge of the marking process said these adjustments were not clear or obvious in viewed scripts.

“Examiners target subjective questions where, for example, a student’s opinion is sought because they are easier to adjust, and not ones which have a clear, factual answer,” the source said.

“Marks are revised all the time by supervising examiners, so it’s not obvious even in a marked script what has happened.”

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