Teachers’ unions say they support spreading assessment for the Leaving Cert across fifth and sixth year by placing a greater emphasis on project or practical work.
The focus on high-stakes written Leaving Cert exams has been linked by many to mental health problems and anxiety among students.
However, the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) told the Oireachtas education committee on Tuesday that it supports assessments in fifth year which would reduce the pressure on sixth years. This could mean students would have accumulated up to 60 per cent of overall marks across individual subjects by the time they sit their end-of-school written exams.
The Irish Times understands that this proposal is contained in a report on Leaving Cert reform being considered by Minister for Education Norma Foley.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) report states that while there is broad agreement that exams should remain, it envisages giving greater weighting to continual assessment, projects or other course components over a two- or three-year period
TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie told the committee that senior cycle subjects were continually evolving and 22 of them now have second components, while some – such as PE – have three.
“We have called for some second component assessments to take place during fifth year, thereby reducing the pressure in sixth year,” he said.
However, he cautioned that changes should involve “evolution rather than revolution” and that teachers engaged with the assessment of their students over the past two years on a “without precedent” basis only.
Mr Gillespie also warned that any move towards continuous assessment overseen by teachers in the Leaving Cert could end up increasing stress for students, lead to over-assessment and undermine public trust.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland president Eamon Dennehy said the union has no issue with spacing out exams or assessments, as long as they are independently graded.
“I want to be an advocate for my students,” he said. “I don’t want to be judge, jury and, if it comes to it, executioner.”
The strengths of the current system included a high level of public trust; provision of a valid and objective statement of students’ academic achievement; fairness, impartiality and transparency.
“What is deeply problematic is the fact that the Leaving Certificate examination is the sole pathway for school leavers to higher education,” he said.
Secondary students told the committee that they do not want a return of the traditional Leaving Cert exam and a complete overhaul of the system is needed.
The Irish Second-Level Students’ Union said disruption to exams due to the pandemic has resulted in a window of opportunity for “radical change “which better reflects candidates’ abilities.
Emer Neville, the union's president, said: "We can no longer continue to put plasters on a completely broken system. The solution is clear and that is a complete overhaul of the Leaving Certificate."
She said the union was seeking to space out exams over a longer period and introduce more diverse assessments during fifth and sixth year.
In addition, she said students should be able to gain points through extra-curricular achievements, while the number of university admission places through access routes and further education should be increased.
“The goal should be to reduce the competition of the points race and to support students to have an equal opportunity to attend higher education,” Ms Neville said.
Labour’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin agreed that there was now a “once in a generation” opportunity to transform the Leaving Cert exam.
“I’m haunted by the Leaving Cert I did in 1994 – and I’m 45 years of age ... I hear that it is trusted and transparent, but it has damaged so many people ... it is brutal and savage and puts far too much pressure on young people.”
Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire agreed there was too much emphasis on the end-of-school exams and said the idea of allowing students to accumulate marks on a continuous basis during senior cycle should be explored.