Breda O’Brien: Foley must explain the delay in Leaving Cert results

Teachers fear exam results will be used to adjust accredited grades

The Leaving Cert results are once again not being delivered until September. This will lead to further delays for those who choose to appeal their grade. It will also put pressure on students regarding decisions about third level and make finding accommodation even more difficult.

This is another blow for students. It has already been a rotten year for sixth years.

In February, the Department of Education, not least because of a noisy social media campaign, offered students accredited grades. Substantial concessions were then given for the written exams. Students who sit exams will be awarded the better grade of the two.

Even though many students wanted the choice, the assessment process for accredited grades led to additional pressures on students. Some began to understand the meaning of the phrase, be careful what you wish for.

It is true they have had more clarity than the class of 2020, who had to wait until November to sit exams if they were not happy with their calculated grades.

Nevertheless, this year’s sixth years are completely worn down having experienced the pandemic stretched across two academic years. All the things that add craic to school life, such as matches, musicals and trips, were either severely curtailed or cancelled.

Social lives outside of school were non-existent. The Leaving Cert always looms large in students’ minds but this year it filled the entire field of vision. There was an entirely understandable rise in anxiety, depression and stress-related illness.

It is imperative that Minister for Education Norma Foley explains the reasons for the three-week delay in issuing grades because there is already a degree of scepticism about accredited grades in general.

The bruising experience with rankings has led some teachers to be sceptical about whether the two processes will be completely independent of each other

Last year, teachers had to rank their students. They were promised the rankings would not be released and were horrified when that promise was broken.

This year, teachers have been assured that one set of results is not dependent on the other. In other words, students’ performance in the written examinations in June 2021 will not be used in calculating their accredited grades, or vice versa.

The bruising experience with rankings has led some teachers to be sceptical about whether it is true that the two processes will be completely independent of each other, and to wonder if that is the reason for the delay.

The schools have already submitted their accredited grades. The national standardisation process presumably starts straight away. The timetabled exams are going ahead at more or less the normal time and because fewer students are sitting them, should be corrected a little more quickly.

Naturally, the State Examinations Commission will be anxious to have no repeat of last year’s mistakes, which meant that 14,000 incorrect grades were issued. ETS, a global leader in educational testing, has been contracted to standardise the school-generated estimated marks.

Educationalists with long memories will remember the July 2008 debacle when national curriculum test results were delayed for 1.2 million British pupils. Some students did not get their results until November. An independent inquiry laid the blame on ETS, which had been awarded the contract that year.

Reassuringly, that was a long time ago and comparatively speaking, the accredited grades for 60,000 Leaving Cert students will be a much more modest undertaking. The results will also be subject to analysis by a second quality assurance contractor.

It is vital that the process of accredited grades be transparent and honourable

But the question of bell curves remains. In the normal Leaving Cert, the State Examinations Commission adjusts marking schemes to ensure continuity from year to year in students’ marks, a process known as the bell curve.

Accredited grades will also presumably be subject to a bell curve. According to the curriculum and policy unit in the Department of Education, the standardisation process will not use historical school-by-school data on past performance in Leaving Certificate examinations but instead will use data at a national level.

This may include data on the junior cycle performance of the Leaving Certificate class of 2021, national Leaving Certificate results data from previous years and the national distribution of students’ results. This is likely to disadvantage stronger pupils in any individual school cohort.

The bell curves from the easier examinations and the accredited grades will inevitably be different to each other, though no one is sure by what margin. When the best results from both will be extracted for the individual students, that will create yet another bell curve. Grade inflation will be impossible to avoid. This in turn will affect the points needed to access third-level courses.

There was an alternative to this complex system. Sitting the exams could have been the default option. Accredited grades could have been offered only as a robust plan B if, God forbid, an individual or a cohort could not sit exams due to Covid-19.

Not only would the process have been far less complex and less prone to grade inflation, but students would probably be getting their exam results at the normal time this year.

It is vital that the process of accredited grades be transparent and honourable. The stressed but stoic class of 2021 deserve a bright future, not lingering doubts about their final grades.