Junior Cert changes will be most radical reform of exam system


ANALYSIS:Proposals will aim to tackle the problem of male students disengaging from school during the Junior Cert cycle and lift standards in literacy

TRENCHANT CRITICISM of the Junior Cert exam has been a feature of the education debate for over a decade.

The exam – designed in 1989 to be radical and different – quickly became a mirror image of the Leaving Cert, with the same, familiar failings. It was too high stakes, too dominated by rote learning and it forced teachers to teach to the test.

The progressive new proposals tabled by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn have the potential to liberate both students and their teachers. They are arguably the most radical reform of the exam system in the history of the State.

In essence, the Junior Cert is being transformed from a high-stakes exam to essentially a “house exam’’ run by the schools themselves.

Schools and their students can mix and match from a menu of traditional subjects and new “short courses” ( in areas like digital technology and Chinese culture).

They can be chosen from a new syllabus designed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

The State Exams Commission will still set exam papers in traditional subjects but schools will be free to mix these with their own choice of short courses.

The plan is that the junior cycle will move out of the current straitjacket – schools and teachers will have the elbow room to encourage critical thinking and to provide more creative teaching.

The new Junior Cert is broadly in line with the practice in high performing education systems like Finland and New Zealand.

There is widespread agreement in education circles that the Junior Cert needs radical change.

Last year, Mr Quinn told a conference on exam reform: “It is clear that the Junior Certificate examination has a serious, negative backwash effect on students’ learning and is out of line with international practice.”

Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute indicates that high numbers of male students – particularly those from a disadvantaged background – tend to disengage from school during the Junior Cert cycle. Many teenagers, it concluded, are ill-suited to an education system built around one terminal exam.

The Department of Education hopes the new exam will also help to lift standards in literacy and numeracy.

The most recent OECD/Pisa study in 2009 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.

Junior Cert results in the past decade have failed to reflect this worrying drop in standards. Last year, an Irish Times analysis of Junior Cert results indicated 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 most controversial feature of the new exam is the proposals for teachers to assess their own pupils. This could be opposed by the ASTI, although the low-stakes nature of the new exam may soften opposition .

In a significant move last month, Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals suggested teachers should be willing to correct their own students’ Junior Cert exam papers.

“If we’re in the middle of reforming it to ensure it’s not a high-stakes exam any more, why not be a bit more courageous?”