We need to cancel the Leaving Cert and give students predicted grades

Opinion: Ireland, uniquely, is intent on pressing ahead with State exams

Ireland, uniquely, seems intent on pressing ahead with State exams in some form.

Ireland, uniquely, seems intent on pressing ahead with State exams in some form.

 

Along with thousands of other Leaving Cert students, I find myself in an extraordinary position. Schools are closed and look set to remain shut until the summer. Many of us do not have quiet spaces in our homes or have unreliable wifi and sub-standard laptops. Significant numbers face being unable to complete the school curriculum. What impact will all this have on students studying for exams which are supposed to be fair and equitable?

Lots of potential solutions have been floated assuming the exams do not go ahead in June. The prospect of delaying them until late summer threatens to place a huge burden on students’ shoulders and harm their mental health. Running a slimmed down version - such as English and maths - would be unfair to students whose strengths lie elsewhere. Online exams are not a viable option for students in areas where broadband is poor or non-existent.

But there is a pathway to a solution - and it’s one which other countries have adopted when faced with the prospect of holding national exams in the midst of an unprecedented crisis: cancel them and give students predicted grades.

The American SATs, the UK’s A-levels and the International Baccalaureate are just of the education systems which have gone down this route.  Ireland, uniquely, seems intent on pressing ahead with our exams in some shape or form. On Thursday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the exams will go ahead “by hook or by crook” - despite the fact that students will have missed up to a quarter of the school year.

I am fully aware that the Leaving Certificate  is different to exams elsewhere in many ways. However, in the same way that Mr Varadkar is looking to countries such as South Korea for best pratice in the State's approach to tackling the virus, this is a time to look abroad and borrow the best solutions if we are to protect students’ best interests.

Abilities

Predicted grades make sense. Teachers have been testing us on topics for two years and are aware of our abilities in each subject. They are professionals and are in a position to judge our performance. It happens in many other countries - why not in Ireland?

Student performance over the past two years should be used to calculate average CAO points for candidates, as is happening elsewhere. Teachers' assessments of their students could be validated against students' past performance in the Junior Cert or school-wide performance.  Those who may be disgruntled with their predicted grades could, perhaps, sit exams in the autumn when re-checks usually would have occurred, giving time for them to be corrected in time for the start of college. It's not ideal, of course, but neither is giving all students 100 per cent for their cancelled oral and practical exam components.

Some argue that there is no culture or precedent for teachers assessing their own students for exams in Ireland. Maybe it was once the case, but not any more. Teachers nowadays assess Junior Cycle students’ classroom-based assessments. In Leaving Cert subjects such as agricultural science, teachers grade their students’ project work which, in turn, is validated by the State Examinations Commission. In fact, every year hundreds of students who cannot complete exams for reasons outside their control are given “assessed grades” by exam authorities. These are calculated using a combination of methods, including teachers’ estimates of how  students would have performed. The SEC says it takes this approach when some or all of a student’s work is not available for marking due to “unique, unforeseen and exceptional” circumstances. It's hard to think of a more apt description of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Finally, there is a large chasm emerging between schools due to a “digital divide”. Students in the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to have access to broadband or a computer to communicate with their teachers. The opposite is true of the most privileged  schools. This will hinder students’ ability to do their best in the exams in very unequal ways.

Deferring the exams should not be an option. The prospect of exams being held later in summer will only add to the stress and uncertainty we are facing. It is extremely unlikely that we will return to school any time soon as Ireland has only entered into “lockdown" and, according to the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, Ireland is only “at an early stage” of infection. The head of the HSE has also said it is “impossible” to predict when Ireland will reach the peak of the virus. How can we ask our students to wait until the crisis abates - with no guarantee of when this will happen?

Hysteria

Since we began our senior cycle, we have been building up to the Leaving Cert exams. Even in normal times there is hysteria and pressure attached to this set of exams; it has multiplied many times over against the backdrop of the current crisis.

Wellbeing is now a subject which forms a key part of the school curriculum - but it is hypocritical to teach something that cannot be practiced in reality. The uncertainty over these exams risks obliterating our own mental health. In the words of Greta Thunberg: “I should be in school”.

The State Examinations Commission must now consider predicted results as a means of grading students. At a time of global anxiety and uncertainty, it is only right that students should be given this option on a once-off basis. Predicted grades for 2020 would, at the very least, allay the fears of students across Ireland in these troubled times.

Lucy Donegan is a sixth year student and Leaving Certificate candidate