Our CAO points system is equitable and transparent. Why change it?

Opinion: Alternative options are unfair and open to abuse. Waffle and wishful thinking is not enough

The points system does not hinder anyone from pursuing their ambition because of lack of money. File photograph: The Irish Times

The points system does not hinder anyone from pursuing their ambition because of lack of money. File photograph: The Irish Times

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When the Leaving Cert results and offers of places in colleges were released last September, there was a blizzard of criticism of the points system. This was odd because the problem at the time was caused by inflated grades produced by the school-based assessment system.

Colleges offer the available places to the students with the better Leaving Cert results. Those who are better academically at second level generally perform better in the third level academic world.

Admission based on national exam results is transparently fair. Everyone is treated equally.

If any system cannot be transparent, it is open to abuse. Ask Harvard.

This exam-based system of admission has frequently been criticised, but every alternative creates more problems of its own.

In general, those pressing for change suggest that institutions should broaden their selection criteria. Apart from academic ability, what other quality is required for academic study at third level? This is never addressed by the critics, neither do they ever explain how they would surmount the problems which their subjective methods create.

They want to take account of interviews, aptitude tests, personal statements; but they never explain how they could arrange interviews and aptitude tests for 70,000 applicants, each with 20 course choices, making almost 3 million interviews/tests. Apart from the impossible logistics, are interviews open to influence?

What would aptitude tests actually test? An “aptitude” test has been part of the admissions requirements for a place in medicine. This is the Hpat which claims to predict which students have an “aptitude” for medicine. There is no proof that this works.

There is a thriving grinds industry in coaching students for the Hpat. How do the grind schools teach an aptitude? Or are they teaching what answers might be appropriate for the test?

If students do not get a high enough grade in the test, they can repeat it.

But how can a natural aptitude suddenly develop in the space of a year if it was not there before?

Furthermore, only the well-off can afford the hefty fee of more than €150 to take the Hpat test, placing a further obstacle in the way of ordinary students. The points system does not hinder anyone from pursuing their ambition because of lack of money.

Trinity College Dublin conducted an experiment in which students were invited to submit a personal statement. They said that this would enable them to get to know the student.

But they could not even confirm whether the student herself/himself had written the statement. How do you get to know a student by reading a statement written by somebody else? Personal statements are meaningless.

A game of chance

It has been suggested that the CAO could be tweaked to include class position, marks in subjects relevant to your course and assessing skills.

But exactly what skills would be assessed for a place in geography? Class position means that if you are a bright student, but unlucky enough to find yourself in a class with other bright students, your results will be downgraded.

On the other hand, if you are lucky enough not to have bright class-mates your results will be upgraded. A game of chance, based on the academic ability of your class-mates; not on your own ability. Logical?

Some have proposed that school-based assessment should have a role. For example, it has been said that it is possible for teachers to accurately assess their students.

This is untrue. What the accredited grades model showed was that grades provided by teachers in 2021 were 30 per cent higher than in 2020. Were some teachers promoting their students rather than assessing them?

Others say school-based projects, portfolio-based assessments, end-of-year interviews and credit-based modules can offer “rich experiences” in the assessment and reporting of students’ learning.

Have they not noticed the widespread inflating of school grades? No reliance can be placed on subjective school-based assessments.

It has also been stated by commentators that we all have much to learn from the pandemic and that the professional judgement of teachers can inform our reflections on these lessons.

Lessons learned should be based on facts. The professional judgement of teachers is shown in the huge inflation in grades. This is a fact.

The suggested alternatives I have heard so far demonstrate the absence of rational thinking, based on evidence.

Yes, they portray a heart-warming concern to ease the burden on students – but they conveniently ignore the detrimental consequences of their woolly proposals.

Before any more “innovative” and “progressive” selection systems are resurrected would it be too much to ask that the proposers should say exactly how they would deal with the logistics; how surmount the failings of their subjective methodologies; and how ensure the equity, transparency and objectivity which the points system provides?

Specifics are required; waffle and wishful thinking are not enough.

The points system has given generations of talented and hard-working young people, who had no influential support, the opportunity to use their own academic ability to gain a third level place and secure a better future.

Before any thought is given to tampering with this straightforward, equitable and transparent system, serious questions need to be answered about proposed alternatives.

John McAvoy is former general manager of the CAO