What other options are there for the Leaving Cert?

A return to last year’s ‘hybrid’ Leaving may prove impossible, but there is an alternative

In April 2020 Leo Varadkar insisted the Leaving Cert would go ahead “by hook or by crook”. It didn’t, of course.

In early 2021, Minister for Education Norma Foley said it was her "firm intention" to press ahead with traditional exams. She, too, reversed her position.

In both cases there was a crucial moment which convinced the Government to change tack: the intervention of students.

So, the announcement by the Irish Second Level Students Unions (ISSU) on Tuesday that the State exams "cannot go ahead as planned" in 2022 is highly significant.

In the past, talk of “student voice” was mostly tokenism and student representatives didn’t carry much weight.

This has changed dramatically thanks to a highly organised ISSU and the considerable power of social media.

Students, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and Opposition parties are now united against pressing ahead with traditional exams.

A poll of an estimated 30,000 students – to be published next week by the ISSU – will likely add to pressure for change.

Teachers’ unions, Department of Education officials and some Government ministers, however, want exams to go ahead as planned and argue that the adjustments made will ensure there is fairness for students.

Voicing opposition to the exams is the easy bit: a more difficult question is what are the alternatives?

The option of re-running last year’s system of giving students a choice between written exams and teacher-assessed grades looks to be highly difficult, if not impossible.

This is because thousands of this year's Leaving Cert students - specifically those who did not do transition year - have no Junior Cycle exam results as such exams were cancelled in 2020. Junior Cycle results were crucial to the standardisation process which helped ensure fairness and consistency in Leaving Cert results in recent years.

Any attempt to estimate these students’ results by an algorithm, based on a school’s historical performance, would likely lead to accusations of “school profiling” and end up mired in controversy.

This, realistically, leaves policy-makers with just two broad options:

Option one: Additional choice in exam papers

Under current plans, students sitting the 2022 State exams will have more choice on their exam papers to account for the impact of the pandemic on education over the past two years.

Existing plans also provide for two sets of Leaving Cert exams to be held during the summer to cater for those who are sick with Covid-19 or are in isolation.

The planned adjustments to the exams are fairly modest in some papers, so further changes could be factored in to account for added disruption.

Marking schemes could also be adjusted in some cases, such as giving greater weight to project work, etc.

Significantly, students and principals have not specifically called for a return to last year’s “hybrid option” of a choice between accredited grades and exams. In theory, then, such a move could be enough to get them on board.

It would also avoid teachers having to assess their own students, which unions are fiercely opposed to.

The fact that the summer written exams are being drawn up around now and likely to be printed soon means the clock is ticking fast. For now, it seems the most likely option.

Option two: Teacher-assessed grades – with no standardisation

While it would be difficult, if not impossible, to standardise teacher-assessed grades due to the absence of Junior Cycle results, there is another option: drop standardisation altogether.

This is what happened in the UK last year following uproar over the extent to which students were downgraded using an algorithm.

Teachers in the UK determined grades using mock exams, course work, essays and in-class tests without any resorting to any standardisation.

Exam boards provided teachers with optional assessment questions for students to answer to help schools decide which grades to award.

The downside is it that it would almost certainly send grades soaring to levels even higher than last year.

Last year, for example, some students with maximum points, incredibly, did not gain access to their first choice and were rejected on random selection.

The absence of standardised assessments would also lead to unfairness in the allocation of inflated grades across individual schools, with some being more generous than others.

Such a move would also attract opposition from teachers’ unions, who argue that they should not have to assess students for the purpose of State exams - though they have agreed to do so over the past two years. All these downsides mean, for now, this is less likely as an option.