Q&A: Could Scottish exams debacle happen here?

Irish and Scottish calculated grade systems share key principles, so trouble may be ahead

Pupils return to St Paul’s High School in Glasgow, Scotland, as the fallout continues from the government’s decision to upgrade exam results. Photograph: Getty

Pupils return to St Paul’s High School in Glasgow, Scotland, as the fallout continues from the government’s decision to upgrade exam results. Photograph: Getty

 

What  is the exams debacle in Scotland  and why does it matter here?

The furore over the use of calculated grades in Scotland – a system similar to that being used in Ireland – may well be a warning shot of what to expect when results are provided to Leaving Cert students here in the coming weeks.

In Scotland, the downgrading of almost 125,000 students’ results based on teachers’ predictions sparked controversy in Scotland.

Pupils in the poorest areas were marked down the most.

This prompted a public outcry, an apology from Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and swift reversal of all downgrades earlier this week.

All eyes are now on how these issues will play out in Ireland. Many Leaving Cert students and their families are understandably anxious about what will happen.

Are there problems brewing elsewhere in the UK?

Yes. A-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due to be published on Thursday, which are also on the basis of calculated grades.

In England, about 40 per cent of teachers’ grades are reported to have been downgraded by an algorithm – or standardisation process – which relies heavily on the previous results of students and their schools’ performance.

After seeing what happened in Scotland – and fearing a similar outcome – the British government announced a last-minute change to allow students appeal the results based on their past performance in mock exams.

Could the same happen here when Leaving Cert students get their results?

There’s every chance. While the models of calculated grades used in Scotland, England and the Republic are different, the core principles are the same: combining teachers’ estimated grades with a national standardisation process or “bell curve”.

This process is aimed at ensuring results are similar to previous years. It helps avoid grade inflation and maintains the integrity of end-of-school exam grades.

But that is what also happened in Scotland and it backfired spectacularly when applied to individuals. Politically, there is little appetite for a system where algorithms, rather than humans, determine how students succeed.

Why not use teachers’ grades and forget about standardising results?

There is plenty of research in the UK to suggest that teacher assessments are less reliable than other forms of assessment.

The biggest research study to date on their accuracy is by Dr Gil Wyness of University College London. She found the vast majority – 75 per cent – were overpredicted by teachers.

Worryingly, among high-achieving students, applicants from low-income homes were more likely to have their grades underpredicted compared with those from high-income backgrounds.

What has Minister for Education Norma Foley to say about all this?

She has sought to reassure thousands of Leaving Cert students that the new calculated grades system will be “accurate, reliable and fair to all students”.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said the Irish system was developed in close consultation with representative bodies of students, parents, teacher unions, school management and the higher- and further-education and training sector. But Opposition parties say similar assurances were given to students in Scotland prior to the issuing of results.

What will happen now?

The process of standardising student grades is being worked through by a unit within the Department of Education. Officials say there are several safeguards and validation processes to ensure this is done fairly.

For example, they say students will not be penalised by their school’s track record. This is because it will recognise if groups of students taking a subject in a school are academically stronger than previous years based on their Junior Cert results.

Is there any solution?

This is tricky, complex territory. One possible path forward is to dial down the standardisation process, even if it means students’ grades will be higher than normal.

Students who sat their exams in previous years – with lower grades by comparison – could then be treated as a separate group, with a proportion of CAO places set aside for them. Whether there is enough time to devise such a solution is another question.

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