Leaving Certificate old fashioned, claims report

Targeted reforms could reduce risk of overreliance on rote learning among students

The study into the predictability of the senior cycle exams found that the issue was “not very problematic” across six subjects investigated. Photograph: The Irish Times

The study into the predictability of the senior cycle exams found that the issue was “not very problematic” across six subjects investigated. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Greater emphasis should be given in the Leaving Cert to assessing “higher order thinking skills”, an independent report has recommended. The study into the predictability of the senior cycle exams by researchers at Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment and Queen’s University, Belfast, found that the issue was “not very problematic” across six subjects investigated.

However, it said certain reforms would be desirable to reduce the risk of an overreliance on rote learning and to ensure students were rewarded for knowledge that had relevance in later life.

While the Leaving Cert proclaimed to assess a broad range of competencies, the report said “the reviewers considered that the marking schemes did not clearly credit higher order thinking skills to the extent that they considered appropriate, and they also judged that questions did not always target the desired kinds of learning.

Thinking skills

“Over the past two decades, assessment practices in many countries have generally become more transparent and have emphasised higher order thinking skills to a larger extent.” It cited general concerns about the syllabus and examination materials being “old-fashioned”, and noted the economics syllabus had not be revised since 1969. This was one of three subjects in which “problematic predictability was found to some extent”.

The report, commissioned by the State Examinations Commission, also included a critique of media coverage of the Leaving Cert, noting “the high level of interest in examinations in the media in Ireland is noteworthy in itself, outstripping coverage in other settings, with the possible exceptions of New York and Egypt”.

Pointing to a practice by newspapers such as The Irish Times of reviewing the content of exams each June, the report said there appeared to be “an unwritten understanding in the education culture, and in society more generally, that the examinations will not contain major surprises, as commentators used this as a point of evaluation of the examinations”.

In this context, it recommends “action be taken specifically to address the media portrayal of the examinations to maintain trust in these important national examinations”.

Student attitudes

A survey of student attitudes accompanying the report found that more than two-thirds of respondents believed they had predicted the exam questions well in the Leaving Cert.

Some 72 per cent of biology students felt they would be able to use what they had learned for their exam after leaving school, while only 36 per cent of English students believed the same.

Explaining their methodology, the researchers said a degree of predictability was inevitable in the Leaving Cert but it “would be problematical if it were the case that once students had graduated they could not subsequently use their knowledge and understanding in other situations”.

In the case of French, the report said students’ answers in the written exam “showed evidence of pre-learnt idiomatic phrases without a clear understanding of their meaning”.“More open-ended questions would have helped to assess higher order skills and productive abilities.” The other subject identified as “quite” predictable was design and communication graphics.

“Although the skills tested [in this subject] were considered to be higher order skills of numerical and graphical thinking, the specialists noted that these could be rote learned.

No issues around predictability were identified with the three other subjects investigated biology, English and geography, but the report recommended reforms aimed at further strengthening these exams.