There’s absolutely no anonymity in this year’s Leaving Cert

The Secret Teacher: Our transformation from lowly teachers to ‘assessors’ is official

Students will find out their exact percentage and class ranking, and there is absolutely nothing anonymous about the individual behind them. Photograph: iStock

Students will find out their exact percentage and class ranking, and there is absolutely nothing anonymous about the individual behind them. Photograph: iStock

 

And we’re off! The Covid-19 Leaving Certificate is under way and “guidelines” were our starting gun. There literally wasn’t time to finish reading them before one of the teacher unions asked its members to exercise caution before engaging with them.

Ironically enough, the guidelines themselves mention the need to expedite the process by not waiting for confirmation of whether a student is taking a subject at higher or ordinary level before starting work on our calculations.

How is a teacher to know whether to speed up or slow down? And what of the principals who must wait for our grades in order to carry out their stage of the process?

Meanwhile, the students are also powerless. Having been in exile from school since March 12th, it must feel to them as though the currency of schoolwork has been devalued. They practically have this in writing, as the guidelines state that students must not be disadvantaged for a lack of work since school closure.

We now have the exact details of how we are to grade our own students for the purposes of them obtaining a set of Leaving Certificate calculated grades. And with that our transformation to “assessors” is official.

As lowly teachers we normally waved them off into an exam hall where their performance would earn them a grade band via the State Examinations Commission (SEC), behind which all the individuals involved would remain anonymous.

This year, promoted to assessor rank, we have been charged with giving them an exact percentage and a class ranking. Individual students will eventually find out both, and there is absolutely nothing anonymous about the individual behind them.

I wouldn’t have much issue with that plan if it contained one additional element: the student calculates the exact same two items for him/herself and sends it to the school principal.

For almost two years I have shared that learning space and time with each of those individual students, and we all know exactly what went on in that classroom. Each one is well equipped to create that rank order, and having to determine and declare their own ranking would give them an opportunity to reflect on their individual performances and the likely result of this year’s novel grading system.

Students come out of an exam hall commenting on their performance and speculating on how they might fare in the grading; in the same way, creating a sense of ownership over the prior performance which informs this grade would present an extremely beneficial learning opportunity. And access to the students’ interpretation of the same situation as the one we are being asked to judge would be extremely beneficial to school principals.

Surely it makes sense to invite the only other people in the arena to comment on and in some way evaluate what has taken place.

Apart from when a pupil may have applied to view his/her Leaving Certificate scripts, perhaps with the idea of appealing the result, exact percentages have not been generally known. We have only ever had grade bands for previous Leaving Cert cohorts, and yet the guidelines suggest we look at how students of similar ability in previous years got on in the exam.

And just like that we may use the breadth of a past grade band to inform a precise future percentage mark. Rarely have I come across a better illustration of not comparing like with like. Different individual, different circumstances, different data, different judge and jury and so on. Where is reliability here? Or validity?

There is also the “Johnny will get an H1 – he’s a H1 student” mentality, which runs counter to best assessment practice. It also undermines the reality that an appropriately assessed performance in a specific task on a given day has a fixed value.

The reality of exam assessment is that there are many factors that exist independent of a student’s normal or
typical performance

Finding that fixed value is the purpose of valid and reliable assessment after effective teaching and learning. But then, on the day of the task, additional variables kick in: Who can hold their nerve? Who doesn’t have a migraine on the day? Who is grieving the loss of a pet they have grown up with? The reality of exam assessment is that there are many factors that exist independent of a student’s normal or typical performance.

We are accustomed to freedom of speech around possible exam performance because the SEC has always protected us from actually assessing our own students. In terms of Leaving Certificate assessment, we teachers have been members of the audience, freely engaging in speculation. Propelling us centre stage to the high-stakes scenario of awarding final grades for third-level education, without specific training, is a significant challenge of the Covid Leaving Certificate.

Blatant evidence that we have a long way to go regarding assessment practices emerged in recent weeks when I have heard very few refer to the “calculated grades” by their actual name. Predicted grades are a concept we are vaguely more familiar with, and I hear the terms predicted grades and calculated grades used almost interchangeably. Predicted grades for assessment purposes and casual speculation on how Johnny will get on in his exams are not the same thing. And calculated grades are another thing entirely.

Their appearance on the Irish education scene has presented this year’s Leaving Certificate teachers with an unprecedented responsibility in relation to assessment practice. What is crucial now is that we are given due ownership of that task. As we approach this year’s finish line, dare I speculate that a legacy of the Covid Leaving Certificate might be that Irish teachers become more empowered?