Grading changes risk further alienating less academic pupils

Analysis: Many students already feel our academic secondary school system is rigged against them

An unintended consequence of the new grading system  is that disadvantaged schools are losing out and the gap with other schools is at risk of widening. File photograph: David Sleator

An unintended consequence of the new grading system is that disadvantaged schools are losing out and the gap with other schools is at risk of widening. File photograph: David Sleator

 

A new grading system introduced two years ago was supposed to ease pressure on Leaving Cert students and take some of the heat out of the points race.

However, a new study by the ESRI finds that, for some students, it has had the opposite effect.

Many students who feel ill-equipped to take on more challenging papers are sitting higher-level exams because of the increased points on offer. This is posing challenges in terms of workload and stress for students who are already facing into a highly pressurised set of exams.

Another unintended consequence is that disadvantaged schools are losing out and the gap with other schools is at risk of widening.

Pupils in the schools under the Deis scheme – the Department of Education’s programme of support for schools in poorer areas – are not taking up higher-level subjects to the same extent as other schools, the report finds.

This can often be because the higher-level subject simply isn’t taught in the school as there hasn’t been demand in the past.

Another negative outcome is that many students now feel the gap between the points awarded for higher and ordinary papers is too wide and that ordinary-level points do not fairly reflect the workload and effort involved.

Reduced

Under the grading changes, the maximum number of points awarded for ordinary-level papers was reduced.

This, according to the ESRI report, is impacting on ordinary-level students’ motivation, engagement and academic self-image.

It found this negative self-image of lower-performing students was further reinforced by the dominance of the “points race” and the perceived excessive emphasis on maximising achievement in the exams.

There’s no doubt that the reforms have achieved some of their key stated objectives.

They have, for example, led to higher take-up of higher-level subjects to the point where record numbers of students are taking on more challenging papers.

But at what cost?

As the report points out, it is not clear that this this is a outcome is a positive outcome is students are struggling to meet the requirements of the higher-level course.

Demoralisation

The perception that ordinary-level papers have been downgraded – along with the CAO points on offer – and the demoralisation of students studying subjects at ordinary level are worrying.

For many students, it will reinforce the feeling that our highly academic secondary school simply isn’t for them – and that, in many ways, the system is rigged against them.

If we are to ensure all students feel engaged and have high expectations from the outset, it may well be time for more radical changes.

More widely, the review of the senior cycle offers a chance to ensure that our system is one that maximises the potential of all, not some, students.