How did this year’s Leaving Cert class fare?
How many got top marks or failed in English, Irish and maths, and what does it all mean?
The Leaving Cert results show students have settled into the new grading system
In 2017, a new marking system ditched 14 different grades (A1, B2, C3 etc) and brought in just eight, ranging from H1 to H8 and O1 to O8. Now that it’s firmly bedded in, it’s clear that – as with the old system – grades tend to stay largely the same from one year to the next.
This is because, unlike at third level, where grades have been rising across the majority of higher-education institutions over the past few decades, the Leaving Cert exam is marked on a bell curve. This means that the number of top and low grades tends to be relatively smaller and that the majority of students are usually bunched between a H2/O2 and H4/O4.
But, within this, there has always been a significant difference in the marks awarded in each subject. Latin students are over seven times more likely than English students to get top marks. Physics students are almost four times more likely than art students to get a H1, but they’re also over five times more likely to fail.
What accounts for these differences and do some subjects offer an “easier” honour than others? For students looking for top marks and the highest points score, it’s not as straightforward as this. While physics and chemistry, for instance, gives out a relatively high number of H1 and H8 grades, this is because students with a high aptitude for the subject tend to be drawn to it and can do well, but for students with less aptitude for the maths and formulas involved, it can be a real struggle. And, where subject numbers are low, it’s often the case that the subject in question has drawn in students who particularly enjoy or excel at it.
To put the results of the class of 2019 in context, we took a look at some other subjects.
No student wants to fail maths, because a pass is a basic entry requirement for most third-level courses. Since the introduction of 25 bonus points for higher-level maths in 2012, as well as the rollout of the Project Maths syllabus, which places a greater emphasis on the real-world application of maths, policy-makers have been paying close attention to maths grades.
The intention of the bonus points and the revised syllabus was to encourage more students to take higher maths and, ultimately, to enter into more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses at third-level. And with the number of students taking the higher-level paper having more than doubled since 2012, the policy has been a success, although there are repeated rumblings from the third-level sector that students on some courses do not have the level of maths needed.
This year, approximately 1,089 higher-level students (6 per cent) got a H1, compared to 5.5 per cent last year. Overall, 78.4 per cent of higher-level students got an honour, compared to 79.4 per cent last year. The higher-level fail rate rose slightly, from 1.7 to 1.8 per cent (a total of 326 students), but down from 2 per cent in 2017. Meanwhile, the mode grade (which occurred most often) was, as last year, a H4.
At ordinary level, the number of O1s went up from 1.5 per cent (470 of 31,336 candidates) to 1.7 per cent (535 of 31,474 candidates). The fail rate at ordinary level, however, will be of concern to policymakers and educators, as it has risen from 9.6 per cent in 2018 to 10.9 per cent in 2019 (3,430 of 31,474 candidates). This may reflect the possibility that weaker maths students, who are not among the growing cohort taking the higher-level paper, are being left behind.
Taken together, the higher- and ordinary-level maths failure rate means that around 3,756 out of a total of 55,094 students (6.8 per cent of all Leaving Cert students) have failed maths and will consequently see their third-level options severely narrow. With so many students being left behind at ordinary level, this will raise inevitable questions about the approach to maths teaching at second level.
This year, higher-level English tied with construction studies for one of the lowest number of H1 grades (2.9 per cent). Agricultural economics proved tougher, as not one of the 31 students who sat the paper achieved a H1.
The flipside of this is that, excluding some minority language subjects such as Czech a.nd Russian, English consistently has one of the lowest higher-level failure rates, tied with higher-level French and home economics at just 0.6 per cent. Nobody failed ancient Greek, but only 17 students sat the subject, while none of the 31 candidates for agricultural economics failed either.
Overall, 84.7 per cent of higher-level English students were awarded an honour this year.
At ordinary level, 1.6 per cent of students got a H1 while 6.5 per cent failed.
A new system will mean it is easier for students to be granted an exemption from Irish but, although the debate around compulsory Irish remains divisive, it’s a subject where students tend to do relatively well, with 87.1 of higher-level students earning an honour.
Of these, 5.7 per cent got a H1, a rise from 4.9 per cent last year. Just 0.4 per cent failed higher-level Irish, the lowest failure rate outside music (0.1 per cent) agricultural economics and the minority languages.
At ordinary level, just 0.3 per cent got a H1 while 9.1 per cent (approximately 625 students) failed.
Minority language students tend to do well in their exams because they almost always come from a family where that language is spoken at home by at least one parent, and they may have been raised bilingually. Of the 12 students sitting Czech, 6 got a H1, while 19.4 per cent of the 62 Latvian students got top marks and 18.5 per cent of the 340 students sitting the Romanian paper got a H1.
High fail rates
Classical studies remains an anomaly: 3.2 per cent of 440 higher-level students failed (a drop from 5.1 per cent last year but still a relatively high fail rate compared to other subjects), while 19.2 per cent of the 52 ordinary-level students failed the subject. A new course will be introduced in September 2020 and examined for the first time in 2022.
Physics also had one of the higher fail rates, although it was down from 8.2 per cent in 2017 to 7.7 per cent in 2018 and 7.4 per cent today. Chemistry also had a relatively high fail rate at 7.5 per cent, up from 7.3 per cent in last year. Agricultural science also proved challenging, with 7.3 per cent of 6,605 higher-level students getting a H8, up from 4.9 per cent of 6,543 students last year
But the highest fail rate of all was, as is usually the case, in the combined subject of physics & chemistry, where 11.4 per cent didn’t make the grade (a rise from 10.1 per cent last year).
Somewhat surprisingly, 7.8 per cent of 116 students sitting the Portuguese paper failed, despite the fact that many (if not most) of them will be from Portuguese-speaking families, primarily Brazilian in origin.
High pass and honours rates
Chemistry may have one of the higher fail rates, but it also awards one of the highest number of H1 grades outside Latin and minority subjects, with 13.2 per cent of 8,244 higher-level students taking top marks and three-quarters securing an honour. Likewise, physics students have a good shot of top marks, with 10.8 securing a H1 this year. Only applied maths students fared better, with 16.2 per cent awarded a H1 and 81.1 per cent securing an honour; this may because applied maths tends to attract students who have a natural aptitude for the subject.