How other countries do it: international equivalents to the Leaving Cert
The types of final-year examinations pupils take at schools in France, the UK, Germany, Spain, the US and elsewhere
Students take the philosophy exam, the first test session of the 2016 Baccalaureate at the Fustel de Coulanges high school in Strasbourg, eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images
As school final-year examination systems go, the Leaving Certificate has sustained a reasonably good international reputation over the years for high academic standards. But it has also been criticised in more recent times, with many openly asking if this high-stakes exam represents the fairest or most satisfactory way of assessing our children’s abilities and aptitudes.
Much of this criticism stems from the fact that there is little in the way of continuous assessment, and that it disproportionately rewards those who are good at memorising and reproducing large chunks of a given course without really engaging with it, or that success owes as much to stamina as it does to intellect.
Some modest reforms to the Leaving Certificate will be introduced later this year, such as a new grading system, but it is thought that current reforms to the Junior Certificate cycle – which aim to foster skills such as creativity, team-working and managing information – may have a greater impact on the Leaving Cert in the longer term if they prove to be successful.
But how do other countries assess students in their final year at secondary school?
UK and some Commonwealth countries
The GCE advanced level exam is the main secondary-school leaving qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but is also offered as an alternative to the Scottish Highers and as an international school qualification.
Most students study three or four A-level subjects over two years, and each course is split into two parts: AS, which is assessed at the end of the first year and which can be taken as a stand-alone qualification; and A2, for which exams and coursework are added on to an AS level, bringing it up to A-level standard.
Up to the late 1980s, an A-level course was a simpler, linear affair running over two years with an exam at the end, but a series of reforms gradually transformed it to its current modular structure that includes some continuous assessment, much of it in response to criticisms that it forced students to specialise too early and from a narrow range of subjects.
However, to make things more confusing, new reforms that began last year but which will continue to be phased over the next few years aims to switch the A levels back to a linear, end-of-year exam system and also “decouple” AS levels from A levels so that they will no longer count towards a final A-level grade.
The reforms are understood to be a response to controversies over perceived “grade inflation” in recent years with reports of steady increases in the number of students who were achieving the top grades, leading to claims that the system was getting consistently easier and less rigorous. Reactions to the reforms from schools, parents and universities have been mixed.
Known locally as Le Bac, the Baccalauréat has a reputation as a tough system where the assessment (and grades you can achieve) are weighed predominantly on end-of-year exams taken over the final two years at lycée (high school) but with a huge range of streams and specialisations to choose from.
It boasts a 200-year history and a famous founder, Napolean, whose educational reforms laid the foundation for modern education in France and Europe. Like the Leaving Cert, Le Bac is a rite of passage in France, accompanied by lots of stress and hand-wringing, although only around 60 per cent of students take it.
It is pretty much the only way for French students to enter university in France, but students receive third-level offers before actually sitting them as places don’t depend on achieving a certain mark in Le Bac. This makes it a bit less high-stakes than the Leaving Cert.
There is more than one type of Bac: général, technologique (technology), and professionnel (skilled trades). It’s really the général that most people refer to when they talk about Le Bac. There are three streams to choose from: S (scientifique), ES (sciences économiques et socials), and L (littéraire).
It’s understood most prestigious schools demand the S, which encompasses French, maths, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, or ecology; history and geography; two additional languages (your choice from an array of over 60 possibilities), philosophy and physical education. Even Le Bac littéraire requires math and biology, so there’s no easy way out if you’re not a mathematical person, for instance.
There is some continuous assessment but it is apparently of little consequence to your final mark. PE, for instance, is assessed on the basis of tests throughout the year and they have an extended project that involves independent work in small groups on different subjects depending on what they’re specialising in.
The overall German education system, from kindergarten right up to third-level, is quite complicated compared to other countries, with further variations depending on which of the federal states you live in.
But once students reach secondary-school level, they are generally streamed into one of three different types of school depending on a combination of their academic ability and their parents’ wishes: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium.
At the Hauptschule (or Mittelschule), the long-term focus for students is on vocational training although they will be taught the same subjects as students in Realschule or Gymnasium, albeit for just five years. At a Realschule, students spend six years getting a broader education but still with some emphasis on vocational training, but at the end of which they have the option to switch to a Gymnasium if they want to do the Abitur for university admission. At a Gymnasium, which is akin to a grammar school in the UK, students spend up to nine years studying before taking the Abitur, although some states have recently changed the curriculum so that the exam can be taken after eight years.
Known locally as the Abi, the Abitur is the only school-leaving exam that allows German students in all states to go directly to university, although some institutions have their own entrance exams.
Although the numbers of students studying for the exam has been rising in recent years, the proportion has traditionally been quite low compared to other countries because of the strong focus in Germany on vocational training and apprenticeships.
The administration of the Abitur varies from state to state, but students are usually assessed in just four or five subjects and, while they have some choice in terms of subjects, they must cover three general areas: language, literature and the arts; social sciences; and maths, natural sciences and technology. It’s a mixture of continuous assessment and final exams.
The Selectividad is a non-compulsory final-year exam taken by students and necessary for direct entry to university. Before reforms in 2009, it consisted of six exams (four compulsory and two specialist subjects), with the final score being the average result out of the six taken.
Now the average mark in the exams for the four common subjects are taken, but each university sets its own final mark weightings for the average of the two specialist subjects. So if a student who chose to do economics and physics and they applied to university to study law, the economics score will have a greater weighting by the university than the score achieved in physics.
Students from other non-EU countries (except China) who wanted to study in a Spanish university used to have to take the exam, but this requirement was dropped in 2014 in a bid to encourage more overseas students to study in Spain.
The SAT (scholastic assessment test) and its close competitor, the ACT (American College Testing) are standardised college admissions tests rather than all-round final year exam qualifications – the US High School diploma tends to fulfill the latter function.
A new version of the SAT was introduced this year that aims to focus much more on measuring the core skills taught at school, such as reading charts, analysing evidence and applying algebra in mathematical problems. One of the biggest single changes was to eliminate the much-criticised rule whereby students are penalised for incorrect answers in order to deter guessing.
The ACT, introduced in 1959 – 33 years after the SAT – has been steadily gaining on its rival in terms of popularity; in 2011 the numbers taking it surpassed the SAT for the first time.
Both tests are regarded as quite similar but there are differences in the way they assess different information and problem-solving skills, so it’s apparently not unusual for some students to do better in one than another. But it’s reported that nearly half of college applicants take both, for a variety of reasons.
Nearly all colleges and universities with four-year programmes require either test but a growing number of institutions are eschewing them as part of their admission requirements.
But if you fancy doing your bachelors degree in the US you’ll still mostly likely need to take one – or both – of them.
INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE: TWO-YEAR PROGRAMME
The International Baccalaureate, not to be confused with the French Baccalauréat, is a two-year diploma programme that is offered by a growing number of secondary-level schools as an internationally recognised alternative to the traditional final-year examination programmes in many countries, including as the basis for university admission.
Administered by the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate, a non-profit educational foundation, the programme is taught in schools in over 140 countries in one of three languages: English, French or Spanish. Students take six subjects, one from each of six subject groups, and are evaluated by external assessors as well as the school through a mixture of coursework and exams.
It has come to be regarded in some quarters as a broader, more interdisciplinary and more academically rigorous programme than, say A levels or the Leaving Certificate. But it also has its fair share of critics, who dismiss it as somewhat elitist because of its strong following among well-to-do students.
In the UK, a government pledge from 2008 to allow children in all areas an opportunity to do the programme was later shelved amid concerns that a two-tier system would develop because the growth of IB there was being driven primarily by private colleges.
One parent based in France with exposure to the IB programme told The Irish Times that it is “often accused of promoting breadth over depth, and it has a heavy emphasis on soft skills that demand confidence and a cosmopolitan outlook rather than hard work or talent”.
St Andrew’s College in Blackrock is currently the only school in Ireland that offers the IB diploma programme. It also offers the US High School Diploma and the SAT exam, which it organises seven times a year for students who want to apply to US universities.