Will teachers be tempted to inflate Leaving Cert students’ grades this year?

New research raises important questions around how educators will engage with this year’s accredited grades model

‘There were students last year who genuinely felt that they got a raw deal, mainly because school historical data was not used,’ says DCU researcher Michael O’Leary. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

‘There were students last year who genuinely felt that they got a raw deal, mainly because school historical data was not used,’ says DCU researcher Michael O’Leary. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

If you told teachers in 2019 that the Leaving Cert exams would be cancelled and they’d all be marking their own students, they might have laughed at you and then threatened to strike.

But now, in the second year of the pandemic, teachers are – reluctantly, in many cases – set to mark their own students again.

It comes at a time when the two second-level teacher unions both stressing that they are co-operating with the accredited grades system due to the Covid-19 emergency and that it should not set a precedent for teachers marking their own students.

Audrey Doyle, Zita Lysaght and Michael O’Leary – all researchers at DCU’s Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (Carpe) – recently released research that captured teachers’ views on last year’s calculated grades process and how it influenced how they view their own role as assessors.

The survey of more than 700 teachers, carried out last November and December, found that teachers used a wide range of assessment information when estimating marks and ranks for their students, including fifth and sixth year exams and mock exams, their own professional knowledge and expertise in State exams, in-school tracking and assessment records and also how a student generally applied themselves to their work.

Inconsistent

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however: teachers said that they struggled when a student was at the boundary between two grades, or had an inconsistent performance.

Some found it hard to remain unbiased about individual students. Many felt, to put it mildly, let down by the Department of Education asking them to put their students in rank order.

Interestingly, almost all felt that they were fair to their students, but some voiced concern about how some of their colleagues reached their judgments. Responding to the survey, many teachers felt that their colleagues in other schools may have overstated their marks.

Here, for example, is how some teachers’ responded to the DCU survey.

“I felt that I was too honest when I was assigning marks to the students.... I am aware of teachers that significantly inflated their grades,” said one teacher.

Another commented: “I estimated fair and accurate grades and marks for my students but they were hugely downgraded… [I] felt so let down by the process and I regret not over-estimating their grades.”

One added: “The worst teachers [will] take advantage of calculated grades to boost their image/status and hide their own inadequacies in teaching.”

Prof Damian Murchan, head of the school of education at Trinity College, isn’t surprised by some of the comments.

“Sometimes people see in others what they are doing themselves,” he says.

“One thing we know from the research is that teachers tend to see the best in their students, reward their efforts and give them the benefit of the doubt.”

With some teachers feeling that their estimated marks were unfairly downgraded last year, will this influence how they engage with the process this year?

And will they be tempted to inflate student grades this time around, especially as school historical data is not being used this year?

‘Huge influence’

O’Leary, one of the report’s authors, is doubtful. “Almost 90 per cent of students will sit an exam, and that will have a huge influence on teachers,” he says.

“It wouldn’t look great if a teacher gives their class 10 H1 calculated grades but only one gets it in the actual exam.

"...It seems that a growing minority of teachers may be softening somewhat to an ongoing and more extensive use of a calculated or accredited grading system in future assessment processes, particularly for more vulnerable groups".

“In that sense, there is a validity check this year. And while teachers who did things by the book last year may feel more generous this time around, the exam will be a reminder.”

Murchan agrees. “There was no external standard applied last year, no exam that would come retrospectively to verify teacher grades.

“But while the exam may be a source of caution for teachers that will ultimately lead to lesser grade increases, it [may] also cause stress for teachers as the students will be able to see two sets of grades about themselves and compare what the teacher gave them with the anonymous exam mark.”

But Murchan emphasises, the two processes are very different.

“Students have to do different things to get results in both, and because they are different processes, it is unlikely that for any given student, in any given subject, the results will be identical. There will need to be careful messaging on this.”

Even students who do well in the exams say how stressful it was, and that it was not fit for purpose

It is a coincidence that all of this is happening alongside the senior cycle review, but it seems that a growing minority of teachers may be softening somewhat to an ongoing and more extensive use of a calculated or accredited grading system in future assessment processes, particularly for more vulnerable groups.

At the recent Teachers’ Union of Ireland conference, for instance, a small minority of delegates pushed back against their colleagues’ position of opposing some possible changes.

“We should not rule anything out, including examining our own students,” said Audrey Cepeda, a delegate from the TUI’s Dublin city branch. “Even students who do well in the exams say how stressful it was, and that it was not fit for purpose. We should go in [to talks] with an open mind.”

But a majority of teachers are not minded to change the Leaving Cert because of the calculated grades experience, says O’Leary. “Around two thirds of teachers are iffy about [assessing their own students] again.”

Positives

Teachers saw positives in the process, too.

“Most felt that they had plenty of information to make their judgement, though some felt that they should perhaps have failed more students and didn’t,” says O’Leary.

“A small group of teachers gave students the benefit of the doubt because they may have been aware of challenging circumstances at home, such as not having a quiet place to study.

“If there are problems at home but the student has been working hard, and the teacher is torn between a H3 or a H4, they may have given them the H3. Is that fair?

“I would argue it is: in any given year, the Leaving Cert can be unfair to some students. There were students last year who genuinely felt that they got a raw deal, mainly because school historical data was not used. It can also be unfair for students who can’t afford grinds, or are from a background where no family member has gone to college, or who has a poor maths teacher.”

From the mouths of teachers: ‘I felt that I was too honest when I was assigning marks’

– On 2020’s calculated grades:

“I felt that I was too honest when I was assigning marks to the students. A lot of time and effort went into the ranking and as a result some students that were awarded marks such as 82 per cent or 71 per cent were downgraded as a result. I am aware of teachers that significantly inflated their grades.”

- Anonymous teacher

“Broken-hearted by my how my students were treated. I estimated fair and accurate grades and marks for my students but they were hugely downgraded… [I] felt so let down by the process and I regret not over-estimating their grades. [I] feel I have let my students down.”

- Anonymous teacher

“It is very difficult for teachers not to be biased, and more so, the worst teachers [will] take advantage of calculated grades to boost their image/status and hide their own inadequacies in teaching.”

- Anonymous teacher

On Leaving Cert reform

“The traditional LC is a rigorous and unbiased system that is the envy of the world. Continuous assessment and/or teachers grading students for official certification must be resisted at all costs.”

“The link between college entry and the Leaving Cert should be cut completely.”

“We are advocates for our students and should never have to judge them… No system is perfect but the current Leaving Cert is the best possible system; this year’s calculated grades system highlighted this for me.”

“I agree with continuous assessment of my students and this would motivate most and increase attendance for some but the correction of the work must be external.”

Source: DCU’s preliminary survey of more than 700 secondary teachers who were involved in last year’s calculated grades process.

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