Exams review over poor science results


The Department of Education and its advisory bodies now believe that a change in the exam system may be necessary to deal with chronic underachievement in some Leaving Certificate subjects, notably in science.

A draft report prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has shown failure rates in physics, chemistry and biology of between 10 and 34.5 per cent at Leaving Certificate ordinary level. Even at higher level over 10 per cent fail in the science subjects.

The report says such levels of underachievement have serious implications for national policy, which seeks to promote science and technology in the context of the needs of an expanding and modernising economy.

The NCCA report tracked students who took the Junior Certificate in 1994 and the Leaving Certificate two years later. It found that one out of every 10 students in 1996 failed to get five grade D3s. It noted a thirteenfold increase in such poor performance, from 0.7 per cent in the Junior Certificate to 9.6 per cent in the Leaving Certificate.

The Educational Research Centre at St Patrick's College in Dublin is currently researching those 1994 Junior Certificate students who did Transition Year and thus took their Leaving Certificate only last year. Preliminary findings show a significant improvement in results, the equivalent of 30-50 CAO points, according to one source. This will be good news to advocates of Transition Year in all second-level schools.

Meanwhile, the NCCA and the Points Commission are believed to be looking closely at the exam system as one reason why so many students, particularly in science subjects, are underachieving.

One of the terms of reference given by the Minister for Education, Mr Martin, to the NCCA for its re-evaluation of the Junior Certificate was to look at how it is examined. The Points Commission is carrying out a similar reevaluation of the Leaving Certificate exam.

It is understood that one of the strongest criticisms of both the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate has been their over-reliance on terminal written exams at the expense of practical and course work.

This is particularly so in the science subjects. Experts believe that one reason for so much underachievement in science is that there is no assessment of practical skills, other than in the small group who take agricultural science. Ireland is almost unique in western Europe in this total dependence on a written exam in science.

"This means that even if you have the practical skills in science subjects, you are disadvantaged because you need good writing skills to do well," said one source yesterday. "This only discourages students from taking up those subjects."

Senior figures in the Department and the NCCA are now pressing for practical exams as part of the new Leaving Certificate science syllabus, which is due for implementation beginning in 2000.

They point to the falling numbers taking physics and chemistry at a time when employers are crying out for people with a background in science and technology. They believe exams in business subjects should also have a practical dimension.

"We are hopeful that we are going to make a breakthrough," said one source yesterday.

One outstanding problem may be the attitude of the teacher unions, which in the past have opposed the school-based assessment of Junior Certificate practical work, which most experts believe is the best and most cost-effective way to examine such work in science at this level.