Evidence points to holding low stakes exams, Quinn says


THERE IS compelling international evidence that students will perform better by moving away from “high stakes” exams like the Junior Cert, according to the Minister for Education and Skills.

The Junior Cert exam is to be replaced with a school-based model of assessment with an emphasis on the quality of students’ learning experience. The new system is modelled on current practice in Scotland, Finland, New Zealand and other high-performing education systems.

Ruairí Quinn said the new “lower stakes” Junior Cert would deliver a programme which would allow students to develop a wide range of skills, including critical thinking skills and basic skills such as numeracy and literacy.

It would, he added, “liberate teachers to do what they do best – teach effectively in the classroom”.

The Minister described his plan as “the most radical shake-up of the junior cycle programme since the ending of the Inter Cert in 1991”. Mr Quinn has broadly accepted proposals put forward by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to introduce a new junior cycle programme.

The most controversial plan is the proposal for teachers to assess their own students, which is vehemently opposed by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI).

Other features of the plan include:

* Most students will generally take no fewer than eight subjects and no more than 10 full subjects for certification purposes in the new junior cycle;

* Students will be able to substitute two short courses for one full subject, allowing options such as Chinese or physical education or digital media literacy to be taken;

* Schools will also be able to offer their own short courses in accordance with specifications provided by the NCCA. This will give schools the flexibility to tailor the programme to the needs of students in their locality – for example, a short course might focus on an aspect of local industry, agriculture or heritage;

* Standardised testing will be introduced in literacy and numeracy (from 2014) and in science (from 2016);

* Parents will get a fuller picture of how their child is progressing at every stage of their first three years at second level, and

* External supports will be available to schools who underperform in relation to national averages.

Mr Quinn said the current Junior Cert exam had dominated teaching and learning.

“The Junior Certificate is no longer a high stakes exam, yet we continue to treat it as if it were a ‘dry run’ for the Leaving Cert – to the detriment of many of our students.”

In the new exam, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will be involved in the assessment of English, Irish and Mathematics in the initial years as recognition of the central role these subjects play in literacy and numeracy.

These subjects will be examined at higher and ordinary level, while all other subjects will be assessed at common level.

The SEC and the NCCA will also provide materials to schools to assist in ongoing assessment of students’ progress and achievement.

Explaining the changes, Mr Quinn pointed out that significant numbers of first-years did not make progress in English and maths – the key building blocks of learning. “Too many students switch off in second year and never reconnect to learning ... It is high time we changed this, for the good of our students and our teachers.”