School principals' group warns Leaving Cert ‘no longer fit for purpose’

State Examinations Commission paper illuminates process of grade consistency

Fianna Fáil has called on the Minister for Education to clarify issues around the fairness of the Leaving Cert marking process. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Fianna Fáil has called on the Minister for Education to clarify issues around the fairness of the Leaving Cert marking process. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


School principals have warned that the Leaving Certificate exam is “no longer fit for purpose” in light of an unpublished report which raises concerns over the fairness of the marking process.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy principals (NAPD) was responding to a report in The Irish Times which contained details of a highly critical report on the marking process produced by the State Examinations Commission.

The internal State Examinations Commission report states the marking process for the Leaving Cert exams is rushed, unfair and risks compromising the accuracy of students’ grades.

The concerns stem from the way marking schemes for individual State exams are altered to ensure up to 100,000 students achieve grades broadly consistent from year to year.

The report outlines key ways this form of standard-setting makes the final marking scheme for exams “less valid” and “reduces fairness” by benefiting some students and penalising others.

In a statement, the NAPD said it recognised the work undertaken by the commission in seeking to continuously review and improve its examination marking process.

‘Rote learning’

It added: “Today’s findings demonstrate that the Leaving Cert examination process is no longer fit for purpose and is still viewed in the narrow terms of filling places at third-level education through rote learning.

“By extension, it is failing to give students the tools they need for lifelong learning, intellectual curiosity and a prosperous, fulfilled life.”

Fianna Fáil also called on the Minister for Education to urgently clarify issues around the fairness of the marking process.

“It is deeply concerning that the State Examinations Commission has identified problems which have the potential to go to the very heart of the fairness of the Leaving Cert,” the party’s education spokesman, Thomas Byrne, said.

He said the report found there is a potential for some results to be distorted by the weighting placed on some questions above others during the marking system.

“How this conclusion was reached, and what it means for students in the current cycle needs to be explained,” he said.

‘Absolute reassurance’

“The examination period is a stressful time for all of those who take part. It is vital that students and parents know that their hard work will be reflected in their results.”

In a statement, the State Examinations Commission said it could provide “absolute reassurance” the existing exam standard-setting process was “fit for purpose, represents a valid and reliable approach to the marking of candidates’ work and is fair to all candidates”.

It said the document seen by The Irish Times was an early draft from 2018 of an internal research paper and was intended to provoke initial discussion, consideration and debate on what is a “complex and challenging process” in any examinations system.

In the development of the paper, it said a “deliberately critical lens” was applied to the current standard-setting process to “stimulate debate”.

“The paper has been subject to further revision, remains a work in progress, and is part of an ongoing review in the context of senior cycle reform and development,” the commission added.