Grade reforms push ‘ill-equipped’ students to take higher-level exams

New study also says the changes have widened gaps for disadvantaged pupils

Leaving Cert students adopted the new grading scheme without much difficulty.

Leaving Cert students adopted the new grading scheme without much difficulty.


Reforms which reward those who sit higher level exams are pressurising struggling students into taking on more challenging exam papers, according to new research.

The ESRI study into the impact of grading reforms introduced in 2017 finds there is also evidence of growing inequality, with students in disadvantaged schools less likely to take up higher level subjects compared with students in better-off areas.

The changes were part of wider reforms aimed at encouraging the take-up of higher level exams and reducing pressure on students at exam time by introducing fewer grade bands.

Under the grading changes, students scoring 30-39 per cent at higher level – previously considered a fail – are now awarded a pass and with it valuable CAO points.

The maximum number of points awarded for ordinary level papers was also reduced.

The research shows that overall, more students are taking higher level subjects, especially Irish, English and maths as a result of the new grading system.

However, students in the study felt the gap between the points awarded for higher and ordinary level papers was too wide and did not reflect the effort and workload involved at ordinary level.

Subject levels

The report says the perceived downgrading of ordinary level papers and the demoralisation of students studying subjects at ordinary level suggest the need for a re-examination of the rationale for separate subject levels.

It notes that common assessment levels have been introduced for some levels at Junior Cert.

The report also found students opting to study higher level subjects were motivated by the rewards of persevering with the courses. Maths, in particular, was singled out for the bonus points awarded for those scoring more than 40 per cent.

However, the research shows that this created a difficulty for some students opting to study higher level when they may not have sufficient ability to do so.

Selina McCoy, associate research professor at the ESRI, said: “The research points to challenges for students in making subject level decisions – with the incentives such that they feel pressure to stay with higher level, even though they may feel ill-equipped.

“As a consequence, time on other subjects is displaced and additional stress is created for students.”

Widening gap

The report also shows that disadvantaged schools have not recorded the same increases in higher level take-up as other schools. This has widened the gap between schools in the Deis scheme – the Department of Education’s support programme for disadvantaged schools – and other schools.

In addition, small schools faced constraints around class sizes and their ability to offer subjects at different levels.

The ESRI report confirms that the increase in the uptake of higher level subjects has led to a weakening of the overall grade profile for higher level exams. This was an expected outcome of the reform and has been well flagged over recent years.

This was most notable in the cases of maths and Irish, where the increase in the number of students taking higher level has been accompanied by an increase in the number of students attaining lower grades.

The number of students sitting higher level maths rose from 28 per cent in 2016 to 30 per cent in 2017, while the numbers sitting higher level Irish rose from 42 per cent in 2016 to 46 per cent in 2017.

There has also been a reduction in the number of students who are randomly awarded a course in higher education as a result of the changes, the research shows. The findings also indicated that students adopted the new grading scheme without much difficulty.