Why have Leaving Cert results climbed to a record high?

This was an exam year like no other – which poses big questions for the future

Leaving Cert results this year have climbed to a record high with more students than ever securing top grades.

Leaving Cert results this year have climbed to a record high with more students than ever securing top grades.


This is an exam year like no other. Students who get their Leaving Cert results today have been through 18 months of turbulence, lockdowns and school closures during their two-year course.

However, there is a record-breaking return for students who have had to deal with uncertainty and anxiety.

Leaving Cert results this year have climbed to a record high with more students than ever securing top grades.

State Examinations Commission figures show that results, overall, are 2.6 per cent ahead of 2020’s record-breaking results. These, in turn, were 4.4 per cent ahead of the 2019 exams.

It might not sound like much on paper – but grade inflation is significantly higher at the top end of higher-level papers.

Take higher-level maths. In normal times, about 6 per cent of students can expect to secure a H1 grade.

This jumped to 8.6 per cent last year following the introduction of the calculated grades model, based mainly on teachers’ estimates. This year it has jumped again to 15.1 per cent.

In other words, this is a 75 per cent increase in one year, or a 150 per cent increase in the space of two years. This pattern is reflected among other subjects, though the extent of the increase varies.

So: what exactly has happened?

In short, students have reaped the rewards of this year’s decision to give them a choice between sitting the written exams, availing of accredited grades or both.

Candidates were then automatically credited with the higher of the two results.

The move was aimed at ensuring there was a fair system for students which took account of disruption to tuition and loss of learning and did not force students into exam halls.

This twin-track approach was unique. No other jurisdiction has provided this level of choice to students.

As a result, students had the best of both worlds: less demanding exams and the safety net of accredited grades.

This is evident in the record-breaking results being released today.

Win-win for students

The vast majority of students – 91 per cent – registered to avail of accredited grades or sit exams.

In the end, where students availed of both, a majority (52.5 per cent) secured their best result via the accredited grade process. In other words, their school-based estimated grade was higher than their written exam result.

Students’ written exam results were higher than their accredited grades in just 16 per cent of papers.

(The results were the same between accredited grades and written exams in 31 per cent of results.)

Ultimately, this was a win-win situation for students: if they did not perform in the exams, they still had the safety net of their accredited grade in the bag. This has the effect of pushing grades upwards.

Higher school estimates

Teachers’ estimated grades this year were even more generous than last year, especially at higher level.

Last year, for example, teachers overestimated their students’ marks at all points in the achievement spectrum.

It was most pronounced at higher level, where top estimated grades were sometimes two, three or even four times higher than normal patterns.

The pattern was repeated again this year to an even greater extent.

Under a standardisation process, overseen by the State Examinations Commission, these estimated grades were adjusted up and down to help ensure greater consistency and fairness.

This year a total of 17 per cent of schools’ estimated grades were pulled down, while 6 per cent were brought up. The vast majority – 77 per cent – remained the same.

This level of downward adjustment was similar to last year, even though teachers’ estimates were more generous this year.

Why? This is because, under the policy adopted, school estimates are the “cornerstone” of the accredited grades system and “must be respected”.

Anecdotally, the stronger grades provided by schools are likely to have been influenced by teachers who felt their students were unfairly downgraded in last year’s standardisation process, especially where their estimated marks were close to grade boundaries. They were determined this would not happen again.

‘Easier’ exams

For those who opted to sit the written exams, there were substantial changes – such as additional choice and fewer questions – to ensure no student was unfairly disadvantaged.

In addition, when it came to grading these written exams, there was no traditional “bell curve” this year which normally limits the numbers securing certain grades.

While this is normally done to ensure consistency from year to year, it was not used on this occasion because the numbers sitting this year’s exams were not statistically representative of a normal year’s cohort.

As a result, students were marked based on the expert judgment of examiners. This is also likely to be a factor behind this year’s record-breaking set of results.

It is also clear that students targeted the individual written exams which they felt they would do best in.

Irish, for example, was the least popular (58 per cent registered to sit it), while exams such as physics ( 87 per cent), chemistry (88 per cent) and applied maths (96 per cent) were the most popular.

Big questions

This year’s generous results, however, pose a number of big questions for the future.

Will students, for example, be willing to return to a “normal” Leaving Cert in 2022?

They have had a taste of an alternative model which, by all accounts, was far less stressful than in previous years. Students – via the Irish Second Level Students’ Union – are highly organised and active on social media; they are likely to make their voices heard over the coming months.

Another looming question is what will happen next year?

Will results have to be reined in, disadvantaging next year’s cohort of students? Or has a new grading standard been set? And, if so, does that affect the integrity of these results?

These are questions which will face the Minister for Education once the dust settles on this year’s results.