Estimated grades vs exams: how does the system work?

Leaving Cert marking scheme explained

This year, students have been given a choice for every subject of accredited grades, sitting an exam or both, with the student automatically getting the higher of the two grades.

But how exactly will this work and what do students and parents need to know about it?

Prof Michael O'Leary holds the Prometric Chair in Assessment and is director of the Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (Carpe) at the Institute of Education in Dublin City University. Along with his Carpe colleagues Audrey Doyle and Zita Lysaght, he conducted research that captured teacher views on 2020's calculated grades process.

“The vast majority of students opted to do at least one exam this year,” he says. “Unlike last year, there will be no rank ordering of students by teachers, an issue which caused such grief in 2020. At the time, it was seen as a check on the data as teacher rank orderings could be more reliable and a better comparator between schools than their marks were. But ultimately it was not essential.”


As with last year, teachers have been told not to discuss with students or parents what accredited grade they will recommend.

“My understanding, however, is that this year teachers faced into accredited grades with a lot more confidence,” says O’Leary. “They had a lot more information about the students and they did a lot more assessments. Whereas teachers in our study of 2020 said that they didn’t necessarily have enough of the right evidence to make their decision, this year they took a more hard-nosed approach to gathering data.”

Students across the country reported that they were sitting a significantly greater number of in-class tests by comparison with students who sat the Leaving Cert in 2019 or earlier.

Not all evidence is written down, says O’Leary.

“Class tests are one way in which teachers assessed their students, but far from the only one. They also observed their students in class and had passive knowledge. This means that, if they have been teaching maths for 10 years, they will have a sense as to what grade a student will get. And, in most cases, a student getting a H2 won’t be a surprise to them.”

Anecdotally, O’Leary says, schools found the process much less fraught than last year, and that running the exams as well as (accredited grades) has taken some of the pressure off.

It’s unclear, however, whether there will be significant grade inflation with accredited grades this year, as there was last year.

“There was a sense that the exam would act as a check on accredited grades, in that if a teacher awarded a H1 to a student but they came out with a H4 in the exam, it could look bad. But last year, many teachers looked at the higher grades awarded by some of their colleagues or other schools and felt perhaps they should also have raised their own grades: if that is the case, we are in for grade inflation this year.”

This scenario could see CAO points rise, too.

“On the other hand, teachers have gathered a lot of focused assessment evidence designed to inform their judgement, and this may prevent them over-estimating: if all the evidence is pointing to a H2, they may feel they can’t give a H1,” says O’Leary.

At time of writing, the Department of Education has not published the marking schemes for each individual subject, but these should be made available at when the results are released.

How accredited grades work

1 Teacher estimated marks based on likely performance if student sat the exam, using classwork, homework, in-class assessment and other coursework

2 Subject teachers in the school reviewed the estimated percentage mark of each student using an alignment process. No two students should be placed on the same estimated percentage mark.

3 The school principal reviewed all marks.

4 The grades were sent to the SEC by June 3rd for a national standardisation process.

What about 2022 – and beyond?

Because schools were closed for several months from January of 2021, the Leaving Cert of 2022 will have missed a key chunk of fifth year. This presents a big challenge to teachers trying to get through the curriculum.

But they won't get accredited grades, according to the Minister for Education Norma Foley. Instead, adjustments will be made to the assessment arrangements for students sitting the exam, expected to involve additional choice on exam papers.

This happened for students sitting the 2021 Leaving Cert, where students had significant extra choice and had more time to complete their questions.

Indeed, throughout this year’s Irish Times exam coverage, students consistently said that they didn’t know how students up to 2019 managed to write so much in so little time.

Susan Cashell, a history teacher at the Institute of Education, said that there had always been problems with time management for the history paper. "It would make students' study of history and their exam experience less fraught if this amount of time allocation and question choice became the norm for the history paper," she said.

Aoife Walsh, one of The Irish Times Leaving Cert diarists from Castlecomer Community School in Co Kilkenny, said that having the same amount of time but fewer questions to answer made a huge difference.

“In my maths exam, I was able to concentrate, look over my answers and not feel so rushed,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine having to do the exams the way they used to be. There will never be a time in your life where you need to learn so much information and write it out in such a tight time period. I think it’s shown how bad the previous system was and I don’t think it would be fair to go back to it.”

So, after three years where students didn't have to regurgitate massive amounts of information in a short time, can the Department of Education and the State Examinations Commission justify a return to the old system in 2023?

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has been conducting an in-depth review of the senior cycle, with its 68-page draft report proposing to reduce the focus on stressful sixth-year exams, creating a curriculum that suits all students and includes apprenticeship and voluntary work and life skill options, and giving greater weight to continuous assessment.

While it will take a number of years for any changes to be worked out, there’s nothing stopping the department keeping additional choice and time on the exam papers in the interim.

“It would be difficult to justify a return to the old system,” says Prof Michael O’Leary of DCU’s Institute of Education. “Like people who said they will never shop online, there is a sense that the [changes to the Leaving Cert over the past two years] have taught us a lot. There is an acceptance, even among the staunchest supporters of the Leaving Cert, that two fraught weeks in June doesn’t work anymore. It was a model built 100 years ago when people had to keep and access information in their head. I expect we will see less content to cover, more choice, plenty of time and some element of continuous assessment.”