Exams body contradicts OECD finding on decline in standards


JUNIOR CERT grades in English and maths have improved dramatically in the past decade – despite the OECD reporting an alarming decline in standards over the same period.

In documents released to The Irish Timesthis week, the State Exams Commission has told the Department of Education that there has been no slippage in standards.

But the contradiction between the exam results and the authoritative OECD results will raise fresh questions about the credibility of the Junior Cert exam.

In a briefing note for Irish embassies and agencies working abroad, the Department of Education says the Minister for Education takes “these [the OECD] findings very seriously”.

The 2009 OECD report – published last December – is internationally recognised as the most reliable guide to academic standards. Almost 4,000 Irish students were assessed in 2009.

It reported an alarming fall in the performance of Irish 15-year-olds in reading and maths. The ranking of Irish teenagers slumped from 5th to 17th since 2000, the sharpest decline among any developed country. In maths, Ireland dropped from 16th to 25th, below the average.

But an Irish Times analysis of Junior Cert results given to 15/16-year-olds shows persistent grade inflation in both maths and English over the past decade. It also shows grade inflation in science – even though the OECD reported no major change in overall standards.

The main features of the Junior Cert results include:

The percentage gaining an A, B or C in higher level English has increased from 71 per cent in 2000 to 77 per cent in 2009.

The percentage gaining an A, B or C in ordinary level maths has increased from 69 per cent in 2000 to 72 per cent in 2003, and 76 per cent in 2009. At higher level, the A, B or C rate has increased from 72 per cent to 78 per cent in the past decade.

The percentage securing an A, B or C in higher level science has increased from 70 per cent in 2000 to 77 per cent in 2009.

On literacy, only a tiny percentage of students failed either ordinary or foundation level English in the Junior Cert exam – even though the OECD reported that close to 25 per cent of Irish 15-year-olds were “functionally illiterate”.

In its briefing note to embassies, the Department of Education- admits the OECD findings were “unexpected”.

Earlier this year, it asked the exams commission to investigate “whether a diminution of standards of literacy has occurred in the Junior Cert over the past decade”. It also asked the commission to review standards of numeracy and maths ability since the current syllabus was introduced in 2003.

Both reports from the commission express satisfaction with overall standards.

The chief examiner in English concludes: “There has been no discernible diminution of standards in literacy in the Junior Cert over the past decade. In fact . . . a welcome consistency was found when comparing scripts across the same grade bands . . .’’

On maths, the commission reports: “The chief examiner was satisfied that that the evidence supports the assertion that in general there has been no discernible diminution . . . in the standards of mathematical literacy.”

Despite these findings, the department is pushing ahead with what it calls “a comprehensive national plan to improve literacy and numeracy standards in schools”.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has called the OECD report a “wake-up call” for Irish education that indicates how we have been “codding ourselves” about the quality of the system.

The failure of the Junior Cert to pick up on the drop in standards reported by the OECD is one of the factors driving reform of the exam. Later this month, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will publish details for a new look exam. This is expected to limit the number of subjects to seven.


The State Exams Commission has released its annual exams guide ahead of the beginning of the Junior and Leaving Cert next Wednesday. The main features include:

* The total number of students taking the Leaving Cert (55,550) is broadly in line with last year – but this represents an increase of over 3,000 in the past three years.

* The exam taken by the highest number of students in the Leaving Cert is ordinary level maths which attracts 38,147 entries.

* The number of students gaining a reasonable accommodation because of learning or other difficulties is at a record level – 18,121.

* The overall cost of running the examinations in 2010 was €63.6 million, of which €9.35 million was collected in fees.

* Running the exams is a huge logistical exercise. In all close to two million test items – including written examination scripts, art and craftwork pieces, project and practical pieces – are examined.

* The exams generate close to one million individual grades leading to the award of 113,923 examination results .