New CAO points system: what students and parents need to know
Changes are aimed at fairer marking. But could better students be penalised?
Maria Cullen, a Leaving Cert student at Loreto Secondary School, Wexford town: “As far as I can tell, there’s good and bad in the new system. But none of my classmates seems too sure what it is about or how it will work.” Photograph: Patrick Browne
Are you hoping that your child will get an A or B in next year’s Leaving Cert? Well, forget about it: they haven’t a hope.
From 2017, the old familiar grading system – As, Bs, Cs and so on – is gone. In its place is a new grading system, with higher-level grades from H1 to H8 and ordinary grades from O1 to O8.
Proponents say it will drastically reduce the number of students who get the CAO points they need for their chosen course but miss out due to random selection, and will incentivise more students to take subjects at higher level as well as helping to improve the transition from second to third level.
Opponents say the best-performing students may end up with lower CAO points through no fault of their own.
So what is the truth and just what do parents and students need to know?
“It won’t fix all that is wrong with selection for third level, which is currently through the CAO points system, but it will help,” he says.
“At the moment, points are awarded in multiples of five, which means that we end up with large numbers of students on the same points. Under the new system, points are not awarded in bands of five; as a result, students who get a few high grades will have marginally more points. The upshot is that, with less students on the same points, there will be less random selection.”
Another significant change offered by the new CAO points system is that fewer students will fail. Under the old regime, any grade below 40 per cent meant that students got no CAO points for that subject.
Technically, the notion of a “fail” in a Leaving Cert exam was abolished some time ago, but in practice, students and parents have understood 39 per cent or less as a fail.
Under the new system, students who get between 30 and 39 per cent on a higher-level paper will be awarded a H7 grade and 37 points.
“Let’s say you and I were of equal intelligence and ability,” says Nolan. “Imagine that I sat the higher-level geography paper and came out with a D. You sat the ordinary-level paper and came out with an A or B. But I have a bad day, I drop from a D to an E and get no points. This was not fair because it didn’t acknowledge that 30-39 per cent on a higher-level paper was an achievement.”
Not everyone agrees. Danny O’Hare is the former president of Dublin City University and his colleague Michael Ryan is former professor of computing at the same university. In a statement to this newspaper, they say the new system is unfair for a number of reasons and should not be introduced as planned.
“The new system gives the same points for a much broader range of marks. For example if Mary gets 59 per cent in French and Seán 50 per cent, their points under the new system will be the same. Mary may then still lose out to Seán on random selection, the flip of a coin, when clearly she has put in a better performance.
“Under the present system, if Mary gets 59 per cent in French and Seán gets 55 per cent, their points are the same. However, a 9 per cent difference in marks is much more significant than a 4 per cent difference. We estimate that this injustice will, in some subjects, affect over 3,000 students.”
Even worse, they point out, a better overall achievement can give lower points. “If Mary and Seán both do the same six subjects, with Mary getting 59 per cent in all six and Seán getting 50 per cent in five subjects and 60 in one, Sean will get 371 compared to Mary’s 361. Under the old system, Mary would have 385 and Seán would have 365.”
This is not mere speculation, they say. “We are describing what will happen in reality. Students will be given places on courses, such as medicine, who have achieved less than others but been denied those places.”
The root of this problem is that grades and points have fundamentally different purposes, say O’Hare and Ryan.
“One objective, arguably the principal one, is to certify the standard reached by the student. The other objective, to rank students in competition for third-level places and see which of two students has done better in the examination, is quite different.
“With hindsight, it was a mistake to base the points system directly on grades. We argue that subject points should be got from marks rather than grades so that students who get different marks can get different points.”
Some students are not happy. One, Maria Cullen (see panel), says it is merely tinkering around the edges.
Nolan says it is an important improvement but that educators at both second and third level do need to work together on changing the exam system to relieve the points pressure.
“There are many good models of students assessed over time based on project work in their own school which could, for instance, be assessed by teachers in nearby schools.”
Nolan recommends that schoolteachers should now be grading according to the new system so that students are used to it when exam day arrives.
A spokesperson for the CAO says the application process has not changed and students should continue to focus on meeting matriculation and any course-specific requirements and to list their course choices in genuine order of preference. They are currently working on a number of resources including a new points calculator and one which converts points for pre-2017 Leaving Cert students which will be available on the 2017 website from November 4th.
“In the run-up to this transition, people may be uncertain or anxious,” says Nolan. “it may be two or three cycles before people fully get it.”
But O’Hare and Ryan are emphatic: this new system has forgotten the need for fairness, it is unfit for purpose and it should be not introduced as planned. “How can we stand over such clear injustices?” they ask.
Student view: ‘Are we guinea pigs? That’s what it feels like.’ – Maria Cullen (17) is a sixth-year student at Loreto Wexford
“I was quite annoyed when I found about this new CAO points system: the stress of the Leaving Cert is enough without it being the testing ground for some new algorithm.
“As far as I can tell, there’s good and bad in the new system. But none of my classmates seems too sure what it is about or how it will work. I’m on the welfare board of the Irish Second Level Students Union (ISSU) but nobody consulted with us on this; instead, a political decision is being imposed on us. There should have been more conversations.
“I do appreciate that the fail rate will be lower and that you’ll get points for 30-39 per cent. I have mild dyslexia and I expect that I might get around 40 per cent in the language exams, so it’s good that the absolute terror of getting no points for 39 per cent is gone.
“On the other hand, the grading bands are so wide that someone who gets, say, 69 per cent receives the same reward as someone who gets 60 per cent. I’m not sure how that is fair.
“The Leaving Cert is a terrible system. I feel that this change to the points system is like looking at a car that has broken down by the side of the road and declaring they will fix the mirrors or blow up the tyre, but they’re just fixing the furnishings so it looks better for the adults. Actually, they need to address the fact that this terminal exam is based on rote learning, which good teachers are forced to work in and are unhappy with.
Measure of intelligence
“I have great teachers, but we need to face up to the fact that it is not an accurate measure of intelligence. As a dyslexic person, I don’t learn in the same way my sister does; I learn though acting and dancing and volunteering and engaging with the world around me but, this year, I have to sacrifice my life to show that I can be smart according to their view of the world. That is despicable.
“Rote learning is not effective. I love poetry, for instance, and I’m really engaged with the material, but it is much easier to do well by regurgitating something off the internet, so a girl who doesn’t understand or care about the poem gets more reward than a girl who has a real enthusiasm for the poem. Good, passionate teachers are forced to teach to the exam, so school can be more like a factory than a place that encourages a love of learning.
“There are many of us who can’t rote learn. We grow up thinking we are stupid. I can sew a dress from scratch, I can dance, I can organise events and effectively advocate and communicate. But because I can’t learn off an Irish essay, the education system tells me I’m stupid. And instead of any real reform, we get a few little changes to the points system. What an insult.”