Has the Leaving Certificate been ‘dumbed down’?

Experts differ over significance of grade inflation in this year’s record-breaking results

“We’re thrilled with the results – they are record-breaking,” beamed Yvonne O’Toole, principal of the Institute of Education in Dublin, shortly after the school’s Leaving Cert results appeared on her computer screen. “As a school, we’re like a community. We cried with excitement when we saw them.”

The emotions were understandable: 90 students at the school secured the equivalent of 600 points or more this year. Five of those candidates achieved eight H1s (90-100 per cent) grades; one gained a stellar 9H1s. To put this into context, in 2019 just five students from across the entire country achieved eight H1s.

This higher profile of Leaving Cert results was repeated across schools around the country on Friday morning: grades climbed to a record high with sharp increases in the numbers securing H1s across all popular subjects.

Value

But, as emotions subside, some are beginning to question the real value of these record-breaking higher grades.

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They are set to lead to a further increase in CAO points when offers are released on Tuesday. Some students with 500 or 600 points are worried they will not have enough to get their chosen courses.

For college admissions officers, there is a dilemma of how to differentiate between top-achieving students for high points courses like medicine when so many are securing maximum grades.

This “dumbing down” of Leaving Cert grades – as some call it – could lead to more random selection of students.

More broadly, say some senior education sources, grade inflation poses fundamental questions over the integrity of results and the value of Leaving Cert achievements.

One senior university source is worried about the impact of these higher grades in selecting the best students this year.

“We need consistency in results. If we’re getting three or four times the number of students with 600 points, you’re not getting the creme de la creme anymore. That means we can’t differentiate between the best students for our top courses,” says the source, who declined to be named.

“That means more random selection for courses like medicine, which is devastating for candidates.”

The same source also worries about the impact of inflated grades on student drop-out rates.

“There’s plenty of evidence to show a strong link between Leaving Cert results and drop-out rates. So, we’ll have kids getting into university who wouldn’t ordinarily do so.

“I worry that when we return to campus, without all the Covid-era concessions they’ve been getting, we’ll see more dropping out … We’re pulling out all the stops to support weaker students, but it can’t go on forever.”

The other big losers are thousands of deferred applicants applying for college places on the back of results they achieved in recent years.

“Their results are now devalued. We have applicants with really strong results in normal years, who maybe missed out by five points. They will get squeezed again this year,” the source adds.

‘Tipping point’

Prof Damian Murchan of Trinity College Dublin, an expert in assessment, is more sanguine about the impact of grade inflation.

He feels we are not yet at a “tipping point” where it is difficult to discriminate between candidates for the purposes of the entry to the vast majority of college courses.

While Covid-era changes such as accredited grades based on teachers’ estimates have fundamentally changed the profile of results, he says this was expected and isn’t necessarily a negative.

The old distribution of grades – guided by the zealous use of bell curves and the adjustment of marking schemes – were artificially set in any case, he points out. The new system of combing accredited grades and exam results was designed to be fair and equitable to students who lost out due to school closures.

“I’m not surprised in the slightest that recent grades don’t match with those from a few years ago – we’ve changed, in part, the system by which we generate those grades,” Prof Murchan says.

“Grade inflation is a term we have to be cautious about; it’s somewhat loaded and conveys the sense of negativity and that something untoward is going on, whereas, often, it is linked to assessment changes or an increase in the performance of students in an exam.”

Any radical departure from the normal distribution of grades will always attract attention, he adds.

“If grades go up, it’s a case of standards being ‘dumbed down’, while if they go the other way and fewer do well, people are not happy and there can be a sense of unfairness,” says Prof Murchan.

Tom Boland, former head of the Higher Education Authority, says grade inflation should really only matter if one student is being unfairly advantaged over another.

“I’m rather agnostic over the idea that grade inflation is a terrible thing. The same people getting the extra H1s are likely to be the same people who perform well, anyway,” he says.

“Maybe it reflects the fact that assessment by teachers does, in fact, identify students who don’t perform well in the context of a high-stakes Leaving Cert exam?”

He feels there are positive lessons to be learned from our experiment with accredited grades which should form part of a reformed Leaving Cert.

“Apart from its damaging effect on the mental health of students, the Leaving Cert with its role as gatekeeper to further and higher education in many ways perpetuates social and economic privilege through access to education resources,” he says.

“It was said that assessment by teachers couldn’t be done. We’ve learned that it can.”

Future

So, what will happen next year? It remains to be seen whether this year’s higher grades represent a new baseline or whether we return to the old pattern of grades.

If there is a policy of puncturing the bubble of grade inflation, most accept it is a process that could take years.

Meanwhile, Minister for Education Norma Foley has signalled that the accredited grades model is not on the agenda. Teachers' unions are also determined to return to the traditional exam model.

"Young people deserve a State exams process that is consistent with their expectations and that they can trust. External assessment administered by the State Examinations Commission ensures that the Leaving and Junior Cert exams processes remains transparent, objective and fair," says ASTI president Eamon Dennehy.

Students, however, have had a taste of change and don’t want to go back. They have successfully lobbied for extra choice in next years’ exams – to take account of school closures – and want more fundamental reforms to the assessment process.

"Why go back to normal when the new systems have worked so well? " says Emer Neville of the Irish Second Level Students' Union.

“We’ve seen that, maybe, the old system isn’t fit for purpose. We should incorporate the positive changes. So many people still have nightmares about their Leaving and see it a a trauma. We don’t see why it has to be that way anymore.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent