In any ordinary year, Leaving Cert grades stay roughly the same, with the bell curve ensuring no significant deviation.
Last year, with the Leaving Cert cancelled and teachers estimating their students’ marks, everyone anticipated that the number of top grades would rise – and it did.
This year, however, there was more uncertainty: with more than 90 per cent of students opting both to sit the exam and be given an accredited grade – with the student awarded the higher of the two – some observers wondered if the exam would act as a brake on higher accredited grades. If the teacher and school awarded 10 H1s to a class, but only one gets a H1 in the exam, might this look bad?
At the same time, teachers worked hard this year to gather a lot of focused, assessment-based evidence to help inform their marks.
On the other hand, a study from Audrey Doyle, Zita Lysaght and Michael O'Leary – all researchers at DCU's Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education – found that many teachers felt aggrieved that they had honestly assessed their students last year only to find that their colleagues overly generous.
“I felt I was too honest when I was assigning marks to the students . . . I am aware of teachers that significantly inflated their grades,” one teacher told the researchers.
“I estimated fair and accurate grades and marks for my students but they were hugely downgraded,” said another. “I regret not overestimating their grades.”
This year's results show significant evidence of grade inflation across most subjects. So, while this year's 61,125 Leaving Cert students – the largest cohort in years – as a whole will have higher grades than last year or all previous years, this is likely to be offset by higher CAO points for college courses.
Since 2012, Irish has had the highest number of top grades in any subject outside minority languages and music – a trend largely influenced by the increased focus on verbal and oral communication skills. This year, Irish was the least popular written exam, with just 58 per cent of students opting to sit the paper (with the vast majority of these also choosing to get a parallel accredited grade) and the rest choosing accredited grades only. French and German were the second least popular exams, with 69 per cent of students choosing to sit the written paper, suggesting that candidates were steering clear of language papers.
Last year, the number of H1 grades awarded rose to 9.1 per cent, up from an average of 5.4 per cent between 2017 and 2019, while overall H1 to H5 grades rose from 87.3 per cent in 2020 to to 94.3 per cent today.
This year, 11.9 per cent of students got a H1 grade in Irish, while the total number of H1-H5s rose slightly, to 95.2 per cent. Fail grades, however, quadrupled from 0.2 per cent to 0.8 per cent.
At ordinary level, O1 grades have risen from 0.3 per cent in 2019 to 1.9 per cent in 2020 and 3 per cent this year. O2 and O3 grades also rose, respectively, from 8.9 per cent to 11 per cent and 19.6 per cent to 22.1 per cent.
English is traditionally one of the hardest subjects to secure top marks in, but it also has one of the lower higher-level fail rates.
That pattern repeats this year, but in the context of inflated grades across the board. The number of H1 grades have risen from an average of 2.9 per cent between 2017 and 2019 to 4.4 per cent in 2020 and 7.6 per cent today, and H8 fails are up from 0.3 per cent to 0.5 per cent (fail rates between 2017-2019, on average, stood at 0.6 per cent). Overall honours grades are up from last year’s figure of 90.1 per to 94.3 per cent.
At ordinary level, O1 grades have gone from 3 per cent to 5.4 per cent (from an average of 1.5 per cent between 2017 and 2019), while O2s rise from 10.8 per cent to 14.8 per cent.
Higher maths is always one of the most hotly anticipated results because it carries additional points for H6 grades and above.
The number of higher-level maths grades has surged this year, up from an average of 6 per cent between 2017 and 2019 to 8.6 per cent last year and 15.1 per cent this year. H2s rise from 12.3 per cent (2017-2019) to 15.4 per cent (2020) and 17.5 per cent (2021).
The number of H1-H6 grades has also risen, showing further evidence of grade inflation. Between 2017 and 2019, an average of 92.5 per cent of higher-level maths candidates secured those all-important bonus points. Last year, that rose to 97.3 per cent; this year, it’s 97.6 per cent.
Higher level fail rates (H8) are up slightly from last year (from 0.4 per cent to 1 per cent), although the average from 2017 to 2019 was 1.8 per cent.
At ordinary level, O1s are up from 1.8 per cent (2017-2019) to 4.6 per cent (2020) and 7.2 per cent today. O2 grades have also risen, from 11.6 per cent to 12.8 per cent and 15.1 per cent.
The same pattern of grade inflation is seen across the board, with H1 grades up for all higher-level subjects except some minority languages (which have smaller numbers of sits) including Dutch, Portuguese, Latvian, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Russian, suggesting that examiners may be holding fluent speakers to higher standards than in previous years. These subjects, however, retain a higher level of H1s than most other subjects, with 71.3 per cent of Russian students securing top marks.
Classical studies – traditionally one of the toughest subjects to get top marks in – saw one of the highest increases, with H1s up from 5 per cent between 2017 and 2019 to 12.7 per cent in 2020 and 24.6 per cent in 2021.
History grades (H1-H5) rose from 90.3 per cent last year to 93.3 per cent this year, while geography grades are up from 87.2 per cent to 91 per cent. Both subjects saw rises in H1s awarded.
Biology H1s rose from 11.6 per cent last year to 17.4 per cent in 2021.
Some ordinary level subjects with small numbers of sits, including applied maths, physics, economics and construction, saw very slight falls in the number of H1s awarded. Nobody secured an O1 for ordinary level physical education.
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