ASTI opposition means only some benefit from junior cycle reform
Classroom-based assessments aimed at making space for new types of teaching and learning
End of year Junior Cert examinations will be shortened and there will be more emphasis on classroom assessment
When asked about his legacy as minister for education shortly before he was reshuffled, Ruairí Quinn said of his junior cycle reforms: “I would hope to have pushed the boat out so far that it can’t be recalled.”
That boat has been the subject of attack from air, land and sea in the form of strikes, work stoppages and disputes. It has been patched up, salvaged and redecorated on several occasions. Now, five years later, it’s about to set sail.
A circular drafted by the Department of Education to be issued shortly will set out the detail of the junior cycle reforms which will impact on tens of thousands of students.
The 24-page draft circular is still subject to discussions between education partners and the department, but it lays a key foundation stone in the move away from rote-learning towards the creative and critical thinking we urgently need in a competitive global economy.
The modern teaching, learning and assessment methods associated with the reforms have been overwhelmingly supported by educationalists not just in Ireland, but the world over.
The focus on classroom- based assessments and a new marking scheme which awards descriptions of achievement rather than traditional grades, such as ‘As’ and ’Bs’, is part of a shift towards a new kind of learning. If successful, similar changes are likely occur at Leaving Cert over the coming years. But there is a problem. Just one in three schools will be in a position to deliver the changes. That’s because they are either fully or partly staffed by members of the ASTI, which has opposed the measures.
While teachers who are members of the TUI – who typically work in schools runs by Education and Training Boards – have been undergoing training in preparation for the new assessment, ASTI members have not. The irony is many within the ASTI feel they won almost everything they looked for in discussions over the new system. Teachers will not be assessing their own students for State certification, but they will be spending more time on classroom-based assessment, which is designed to promote oral communication, problem solving and other skills that can’t be captured in a written exam.
Crucially, the results from the now-shortened State exams at the end of third year will be recorded separately to classroom-based assessments on a new Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement. This document will be issued by the schools rather than the State, an echo of Mr Quinn’s original plan for the introduction of a school-based certificate to replace the Junior Cert.
The first classroom-based assessments are due to be rolled out to second-year English classes from next month onwards, though schools have the option of deferring this until next September. Students, for example, will be required to complete two classroom-based assessments per subject between second and third year. These will be aimed at ensuring students learn more from “doing” rather than simply learning “about” subjects.
In the case of English, the idea is a student’s performance shouldn’t be based solely on learning poems or plays off by heart. Instead, there will be a focus on oral communication. Or in science, the focus is on doing an experiment rather than regurgitating a text book. These assessments will be ranked using four “descriptors”, not grades. A draft circular states these will range from “exceptional”, to “above expectations”, to “in line with expectations” to “yet to meet expectations”.
This will account for up to 10 per cent of the overall marks of the final examination.
The final exam will be a written examination which will be set, administered, marked and assessed by the State Examinations Commission. These will be assessed under a new scheme: distinction (100- 90 per cent); higher merit ( 89- 75 per cent; merit (74-55 per cent); achieved (54-40 per cent); partially achieved(39- 20 per cent) and not graded (10-0 per cent).
Under these changes, it is intended parents will receive a broader picture of a young person’s learning achievements and will include the ability to think critically and creatively, to innovate and adapt, to work independently and be part of a team. The voice of parents may yet play an important part in the debate.