Students who ‘fail’ higher level should get points for effort

Proposal aims to encourage Leaving Cert students to stick to honours courses

A universities’ working group on reforming the college entry system has proposed allocating compensatory points for students who score below the existing 40 per cent pass grade in higher level papers.

The proposal is aimed at encouraging Leaving Cert students to opt for higher level subjects and then stick the course, rather than dropping to ordinary level when they find the going tough.

Other proposals, under discussion within universities, including offering bonus points to students who excel in subjects directly related to their college courses, and an end to the Irish language requirement for courses taught through English at NUI colleges.

The suggestions have been put forward by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) task force on reform of university selection and entry, although its chairman NUI Maynooth president Professor Philip Nolan stressed today "it's a very early discussion paper".

Of the proposal to award points to students who score between 30 per cent and 39 per cent in higher papers, he said: “I know people will say: How can you award points for a fail? But another way of looking at it is if you made the effort to engage with a subject at a higher level then that is good for your learning.

“If you got 35 per cent at higher level physics that might be as good as 55 per cent at ordinary level physics. So I think it’s important that we de-risk. If a student is not an A student but a C student they will learn more and challenge themselves more by taking the higher level course, and it seems an awful shame that if they just miss out on the D they would get absolutely nothing for that.”

“People do fetishise or place great importance on 40 per cent but what really is the difference between 37 per cent and 43 per cent and does it justify going from 40 per cent to 0 per cent [in terms of points]?”

The pattern of students dropping from higher to ordinary level because of fear of failure is particularly pronounced in mathematics.

Since the introduction in 2012 of 25 bonus points for a pass in higher-level maths, the number of students sitting the paper has risen from one in five Leaving Cert candidates to one in three. But typically between 2,000 and 3,000 students drop down to the ordinary paper on the day as it is perceived as the safer option.

While D3 (40-44 per cent) in higher level maths will earn a student 70 points in the CAO system, below that there is no score. In contrast, an A1 at ordinary level will earn 60 points.

The latest proposals were circulated to university academic councils before the summer and further consultations will take place before Christmas before any recommendations are agreed.

A departmental steering group on reforming the “transition” between second and third levels has already recommended an end to the 14-band grading system and its replacement with an eight-band system to try to combat negative effects of the “points race”.

Under the planned new scale, earmarked for 2017, scores between 90 and 100 would receive a grade H1 for higher papers and O1 for ordinary papers; 80-89 H2/O2; 70-79 H3/O3; 60-69 H4/O4; 50-59 H5/O5; 40-49 H6/O6; 30-39 H7/O7; and 0-29 H8/O8.

The IUA task group now proposes to “incentivise students to take subjects at higher level by awarding points for the new H7 grade”.

It also proposes that the points awarded at higher and ordinary level be adjusted to ensure they reflect workload and difficulty, and that points be adjusted “if there is evidence that some subjects are better predictors of success at third level or are harder or easier than others”.

Overall, the task group says it “strongly recommend that the reform process should minimise perverse incentives influencing students’ choice of subjects and levels, and should encourage students to engage with subjects that are suited to their aptitudes and talents, challenging, relevant to their life plans, and which they will enjoy”.

Prof Nolan said “not everything in the paper is necessarily going to happen” but the group was looking forward to hearing the further views of stakeholders.