Calculated grades process: Agent of warped bias or great leveller?

Schools of different types experience varied effects of 2020 Leaving Cert replacement

Institute of Education on Lower Leeson Street: 44 per cent of teachers’ estimated grades were lowered. This compares with a national average of 17 per cent. File photograph: Alan Betson

Institute of Education on Lower Leeson Street: 44 per cent of teachers’ estimated grades were lowered. This compares with a national average of 17 per cent. File photograph: Alan Betson

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After logging on to the Leaving Cert results website last week, Saoirse Corbett Fitzpatrick felt devastated.

“My single focus for the last two years has been my Leaving Cert,” she says. “I was getting up at 6am, getting to school for between 7am and 7.30am, doing 70-hour weeks.

“I was working hard all weekend, making sacrifices in my social life, giving up hockey to dedicate more time to study . . . I was happy to do that because all my work was rewarded with the grades I got during those years.”

The final calculated grades, however, came as a shock.

Her teachers’ estimated grades were lowered across six subjects and her CAO points tally was about 60 below what she had anticipated. In the process, she missed out on her dream college course of medicine.

Saorise, a student at the Institute of Education grind school on Dublin’s Leeson Street, was not alone in her disappointment.

The institute says 96 per cent of its students had a grade reduced and 44 per cent of all its teachers’ estimated grades were lowered. This compared to a national average of 17 per cent of teachers’ grades being reduced.

More significantly, it says, the school’s level of achievement was significantly lower this year than in previous years.

Peter Kearns, the institute’s director, says the school’s proportion of H1s in French is normally about four times the national average. Last week, it fell to twice the average.

Notion of ‘justice’

“These are young people who are ambitious and want to do well in their academic career . . . look, no one is to blame. People make mistakes. It was an unintended consequence, but there should be justice for these students.”

Many top-performing schools in the country – both private and non-fee paying – feel they have lost out, with their grades down in many areas on past years. Schools with a strong track record in individual subjects also feel they were unfairly graded.

Across the city in Ballyfermot last week, there was a very different reaction. Three schools – St Dominic’s College, St John’s College and Caritas College – were celebrating offers to some of Ireland’s top universities. St Dominic’s, for example, secured its highest-ever overall Leaving Cert performance.

A breakdown of the calculated grades shows the proportion of downgrades for students in disadvantaged or Deis schools is smaller (13.6 per cent) compared with other schools (16.8 per cent).

So, is the story of calculated grades a simple story of winners and losers: was there was “warped bias” against top-performing schools - as one private school principal put it - and a strategy to boost the achievement of underperforming schools?

The Department of Education has said the calculated grades process was “blind” and there is no evidence of bias towards any school type.

Exceptional performance

Government sources have acknowledged, however,  there were issues in the standardisation process which did not necessarily pick up clusters of exceptional performance in subjects due to the way students’ Junior Cert results were combined into composite scores; these, in turn, had an impact on how grades were awarded.

The late decision to withdraw "school profiling" - a measure which proved highly controversial in the UK on the basis that it was seen to penalise disadvantaged students - may also have played a role.

There is a concern with Government that the entire standardisation system could get unravalled by pulling a “loose thread” for a handful of schools.

The official line from the Government in the meantime, however, is that the system delivered results in the fairest way possible, with an overall increase in grades for schools.

 For Sarah Green, principal of St Dominic’s College, the notion that Deis schools won out at the expense of high-achieving schools is a lazy assumption. For example, she says the points achieved by individual students ranged from 37 to 601.

“It’s simplistic to say Deis schools did brilliantly and top schools didn’t,” she says. “Yes, we’re celebrating our top four students getting into Trinity with over 500 points, but we had 10 students who also scored under 200 points.

“They were an excellent Leaving Cert group. The calculated grades process allowed for the potential of these girls to be recognised in ways that the normal exams don’t.

“If you imagine working part-time job right up to your exams, would you perform as well? If you’ve a parent with addiction problems who is off the walls all weekend, can you perform as well? If you are learning online and have no laptop or space to study, how will you perform?”