Breda O’Brien: Leaving Cert lessons to be learned from the pandemic

To reform the exams, let’s start with the Covid-19 concessions given this year

Leaving Cert students prepare for their first exam, English, at Sutton Park School in Dublin on June 9th. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Leaving Cert students prepare for their first exam, English, at Sutton Park School in Dublin on June 9th. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Every time a cohort sits the Leaving Cert, the question of senior cycle reform resurfaces. This year, when students and teachers comment about the exams, one phrase keeps recurring: time to think. 

It should not be so surprising. Surely any examination should facilitate and measure thinking, including creative thinking?

Concerning the subject I know best, Leaving Cert English, my students and I joke that it measures hand strength and endurance instead. At both higher and ordinary level the first English paper takes two hours and 50 minutes of constant writing, and the second one three hours and 20 minutes.

No reform of the Leaving Cert will work without more investment at second level, but it is also needed at primary level, especially for lower-income students

When she was minister for education, Mary Hanafin had mercy on students and put the English papers on two different days. This meant home economics moved to the first day instead, leading to smouldering resentment among those who took that subject as they watched their colleagues skip home to study for the second English paper.

This year, in every subject, the students had fewer mandatory questions and therefore much more time. For example, on paper one in English, students could choose between answering a comprehension question and doing a short writing task. This left them much more time for the essay section but measured their skills just as effectively.

When it comes to reform of the Leaving Cert, why not begin with what we did this year? Fewer questions and more choice? It is simple to implement and reduces stress enormously.

We might not necessarily offer all the same choices. For example, this summer a student could avoid Shakespeare entirely on the higher level English paper two. 

There is so much to be covered for the exam in every subject, not just English, that students begin to get agitated if a teacher attempts to do anything that will not come up in the exam. Similarly, teachers often feel obliged to drop creative teaching methods simply to get the course finished.

More assessment

Some people believe that the answer lies in more assessment of coursework projects and less emphasis on a final exam. However, unless it is very carefully designed, coursework is wide open to abuse. Those with greater resources at home – ie parents with higher educational levels – have an immediate advantage even if their parents only read over the coursework and offer suggestions.

This just perpetuates the disadvantage already experienced by so many children. The latest results of the ESRI longitudinal study Growing Up in Ireland focuses on children who were nine in 2017 and 2018. The gap between the children who are doing well and those who are not is visible long before that age but is stark by nine, nonetheless.

In reading test scores, where the average is 100, there was a gap of over 10 points between the highest and lowest social class and parental education groups.

The stress of the Leaving Cert would also be greatly reduced if it became a modular exam, rather like A levels were before Michael Gove got his hands on them

Perhaps a clue to the disparity lies in the impact on health, which then becomes part of a vicious cycle. Children in two-parent families, in higher-income households and with higher-educated parents are likely to have better health at age nine, while those in two-parent and higher-social-class families are likely to be consistently healthy at ages three, five and nine.

No reform of the Leaving Cert will work without more investment at second level, but it is also needed at primary level, especially for lower-income students.

Otherwise, by the time they reach Leaving Cert age, some of those disadvantaged nine-year-olds will no longer be in school. Those who are will not be on the famous level playing pitch that the Leaving Cert allegedly provides. 

Cheating

They will not have access to grinds almost as a matter of course and they will not have the same level of support for coursework (which sadly, in some cases amounts to cheating) that better-off students have.

That does not mean that every assessment has to be a traditional paper and pen exam. For example, there is a concept borrowed from the business world called hexagonal thinking, which works well digitally. A series of hexagons containing single concepts are used.

Students are asked to line up the concepts so that they connect to others. Each card can connect to up to six others, but might only connect to one. Students might then be asked to explain three of their most interesting choices of connection. No two hexagonal maps will be the same but it is a marvellous way of demonstrating mastery of a topic.

The stress of the Leaving Cert would also be greatly reduced if it became a modular exam, rather like A levels were before Michael Gove got his hands on them. Exams could be taken at Christmas and in June in both fifth and sixth year. So in higher level English, one of Shakespeare’s plays could be studied until Christmas and then examined. A creative and functional writing module could begin after Christmas and so on.

Before the concessions spurred by Covid-19, the Leaving Cert exam was fearsomely stressful. Perhaps the realisation that the Leaving Cert exams can still measure excellence without half-killing the students will be one positive thing to emerge from this awful pandemic.

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