Leaving Cert grades have no meaning beyond CAO

Comment: We need to think outside the box when reforming how we assess sixth year students

As noted in the recently published OECD review of the senior cycle, the traditional Leaving Cert has simply become a “filter for entry into higher education”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The debate over the best way to assess Leaving Cert students this year is in full flow. Should be it be calculated grades? A more traditional exam? A blend of both? The reality is that whatever option is chosen will simply be an emergency response in the face of the pandemic.

Ironically, despite the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s (NCCA) ongoing review of senior cycle, Leaving Cert reform is far from people’s minds in the prevailing environment. However, while I sincerely empathise with current students, in the interests of future generations the need for radical Leaving Cert reform is more obvious than ever.

As noted in the recently published Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of the senior cycle, the traditional Leaving Cert has simply become a “filter for entry into higher education”. This was particularly evident last year when students consistently referred to aggregated CAO point scores rather than subject grades and a high-profile school principal proposed on RTÉ’s Drivetime that results need only be reported in such terms. It is a sad indictment that, after 14 years of formal education, Leaving Cert grades have no educational meaning other than their currency on the CAO “stock market”.

These grades are standardised to fit the bell-shaped, normal distribution curve. When the number of candidates falling within a particular grade band is deemed too high or too low, students’ final grades are adjusted with reference to all candidates taking the same exam papers.



Rather than striving to meet transparent criteria, students are in competition with each other while chasing moving targets. Such competition was particularly evident in 2020 when teachers were required to rank their students as part of the standardisation process.

Informed by research and consultation, the NCCA advises the Minister on curriculum design/content and examination procedures. Meanwhile, curriculum implementation is dictated by external examinations that are the responsibility of the State Examinations Commission (SEC), an offshoot of the Department of Education. While the capability of external examinations to do justice to the NCCA's curriculum goals is limited, the complex relationship between these two bodies is critically important for successful Leaving Cert reform.

In attempting to reduce the numbers achieving equal CAO points, the then minister for education Mary O’Rourke introduced plus and minus letter grades in 1993. This resulted in some 11 possible grades across both higher and ordinary levels, rendering futile any attempt to define them in educational terms.

While the recent reversal to eight grades per level is welcome, the fact remains that these grades result from the aggregation of marks awarded for quite diverse items on papers where candidates choose from a wide range of questions. As such, they defy definition in terms of educational outcomes.

It is hardly surprising then that norm-based assessment, a key feature of our Anglo-Saxon/American curriculum culture, is seen in the alternative didactic tradition as “attempting to nail jelly to the wall”. Witness the sharp contrast between the postponed 2020 exam grades and these same students’ calculated grades. The alternative is to award grades based on set, pre-published criteria and targets.

The recent OECD review observes that the Leaving Cert is “too narrow and rigid” for Ireland’s aspirations of delivering a learning experience to the highest international standard. It rewards surface rather than deep learning while providing lucrative profits for unrecognised grind schools where the grading of students is not subject to the Teaching Council’s Code of Professional Conduct.

Having been “schooled” over the “mocks” course, participants in the Leaving Certificate Grand Annual Handicap Steeplechase gamble on what will come up on our “blind” exam papers.


Some favourites win, others lose, and international observers are flabbergasted at the disproportionate column inches of exam guides in our newspapers. Meanwhile, the teacher’s task is to “cover” (as against illuminate) the syllabus, and to “deliver the curriculum” so that students can “get an education” as against being educated.

Against that background, it is rather ironical that pre-service teachers must undertake professional master’s degrees to qualify for professional registration.

Citing national economic interests, successive governments have resisted proposals for Leaving Certificate reform, while curriculum issues rarely feature in general election debates. To get this cultural and political monkjey off our backs we may need an independent external review. Meanwhile, we certainly need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

Is education primarily a public good or a private commoditity? What is the purpose of the Leaving Certificate? Is it possible to define our exam grades in meaningful educational terms? Is it time to review the NCCA/SEC relationship?

To what extent is our curriculum rhetoric (eg the focus on learning and generic skills) evident in the realities of schooling? Is our Anglo-Saxon/American curriculum culture serving us well? Some 21 years on from the Points Commission, ought a Citizens' Assembly be invited to critically review our educational values and develop a sound philosophical basis for our curriculum and assessment practices? And, if so, how might it be constituted? Without decisive and independent leadership, future generations will surely want to know why nobody shouted stop.

Dr Jim Gleeson is adjunct professor at DCU’s institute of education