Q&A: Will A-Levels grading controversy affect Leaving Cert students?

While the models of calculated grades used across the UK are different, the core principles are the same as Irish system

Minister for Education Norma Foley insists the calculated grades system will be ‘accurate, reliable and fair to all students’. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Minister for Education Norma Foley insists the calculated grades system will be ‘accurate, reliable and fair to all students’. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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What just happened in the UK with calculated grades?

Tens of thousands of A-level students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are set to see their “calculated grades” increased. They will now be based solely on teachers’ assessments rather than a controversial algorithm. Scotland announced a similar U-turn last week.

It follows deafening criticism from students, teachers and politicians that the system of calculated grades – broadly similar to the system being used for the Leaving Cert here – was unfair to students.

About 40 per cent of UK students had their grades reduced from their teachers’ prediction. There was also evidence that disadvantaged students in many areas were more likely to be downgraded.

Why is this relevant to Ireland?

While the models of calculated grades used across the UK are different in some respects, the core principles are the same as the Irish system: 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.

What is the chance of a similar U-turn here?

It largely depends on what reaction there will be from students and teachers when the results are released on September 7th.

Minister for Education Norma Foley has been at pains to reassure thousands of Leaving Cert students that our calculated grades system will be accurate and reliable.

However, politicians in the UK also made similar statements in advance of their results.

In the end, politically, there was little appetite for a system where algorithms, rather than humans, determined how students succeed.

A big factor in Ireland will also be whether a critical mass of students get their chosen college places through the CAO system; these will be issued four days after students get their calculated grades.

What has the Minister to say about this?

She has says the calculated grades system will be “accurate, reliable and fair to all students”.

Her officials say the Irish system differs in a number of respects from the UK. They say our statistical process in Ireland takes more account of whether a group of students taking a subject in the school this year is academically stronger, or weaker, than in previous years.

This means the distribution of grades emerging from a particular school will not be pre-ordained based on performance in previous years. Other education sources argue that our system also involves more human oversight and a greater number of checks and balances.

Will students in Ireland get to see their teachers’ predicted grades when they get their calculated grade?

All students will be entitled to see what grade their school/teachers gave them on September 14th, when the appeals system opens. This is a week after they receive their results. They will also have access to their class ranking order submitted by their school.

Can students appeal?

Yes, but it’s on limited grounds and related to data-entry and administrative checks to make sure information was inputted correctly. The appeal will not involve reviewing teachers’ decision-making processes in awarding grades. Students will also have a chance of sitting Leaving Cert exams - slated for this November - and may opt to combine their calculated grade results with these exam results.

What’s involved in the standardisation process?

This involves combing school data on students (their estimated grade and class ranking in a particular subject) and data on Leaving Cert trends nationally and across individual schools – a calculation that some may compare to the UK’s now scrapped algorithm. This can lead to a teacher’s prediction of a student’s mark being adjusted up or down.

By collecting and using a range of different types of information, Department of Education officials say these different sources of data will complement each other to provide the “most accurate and fair set of results within the limitations of the available data”.

Will there be extra college places this year for Leaving Cert students?

Not many. There will be fewer international students this year due to travel restrictions and concerns – but these students are mostly in post-graduate courses.

At undergraduate level, international students are typically in a select number of courses such as medicine and nursing. It is likely there may be some addition places in these courses – but don’t expect any major increase in numbers across the board.

Why standardise the results if it is causing so much controversy?

The argument in favour of standardisation is to prevent grade inflation and protect the integrity of a qualification. In this way, Leaving Cert results from any one year are considered equivalent to the results from any other year.

Why not just use teachers’ grades – and get rid of standardisation?

There is plenty of research in the UK to suggest that teachers tend to over-predict students’ achievements. There is no compelling reason to suggest teachers in Ireland are any different – but it remains to be seen.

If there are more generous grades, this would lead to grade inflation and – in theory – threaten the integrity of the Leaving Cert qualification. It would also be unfair to the 20,000 or so college applicants this year who are seeking courses based on their results in previous – and less generous – Leaving Cert exams.

In what way is the Irish system different to the UK?

Education sources maintain that the Irish system differs in a number of important respects. They claim that as well as having more human oversight, more focus on students’ past achievement and a greater number of checks and balances, there will be a detailed review of the distributions of results for each subject and level.

They also point to a planned review of outcomes on the basis of gender and socio-economic status. This is to ensure that the model is presenting outcomes that are as fair and equitable as possible given its constraints, and in line with previous outcomes as much as is possible.

Irish officials can also learn from the UK experience and have more time to fine-tune the system ahead of September 7th.

What will happen now?

The process of standardising student grades is being worked through by a unit within the Department of Education.

Students’ grades have been put through a national standardisation process overseen by a National Standardisation Group which includes officials from the Department of Education and Skills; Educational Research Centre and the State Examinations Commission

There will also be a number of other checks and validation processes to be completed before results are issued to students online at 9am on September 7th.