Breda O'Brien: Pressure of mock exams reflects unhealthy society

Lack of exam system reform does not explain stress levels endured by students

“Not only are the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert/cycle exams an industry with offshoots, but so are the mocks.” Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

“Not only are the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert/cycle exams an industry with offshoots, but so are the mocks.” Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Mock exams are happening all over the country, a fact you are probably happily unaware of unless you are a student sitting them, a parent of a student, a teacher or a granny being nudged by your agnostic grandchildren to please light the Lourdes candle for them.

Parents, particularly mothers, speak in hushed tones of unfortunate friends who have two children sitting them, one doing Junior Cert/cycle and the other doing Leaving Cert.

Not only are the Leaving Cert and Junior Cert/cycle exams an industry with offshoots such as grinds, online advice sites and yes, newspaper articles, but so are the mocks.

Are we all out of our minds? Or has the real stress of exams been ratcheted up to the extent that the meltdowns and emotional blackmail (and that is just the parents) are a new kind of normal, even for mocks?

The Irish middle classes do not do low stakes when it comes to their children’s exams

How did the level of stress for so many students become so high? Is it because the Leaving Cert is perceived as the major entry route for college? 

There are all sorts of alternative routes into college, including terrific post-Leaving Cert courses and apprenticeships, but many students and parents seem unnecessarily wary of viable alternatives that might suit a student much better.

And it does not explain the hype around the Junior Cert/cycle, which does not have the level of effect on life choices that would justify experiencing the kind of pressure that many students feel.

Major reform

It may not help that the Junior Cert is undergoing major reform and that, like most educational reform in this country, it was not well thought out. It was decided to phase the reform in, with a number of subjects changing each year.

Last year’s Junior Cert students possibly had the worst of both worlds, as they had to do the new classroom-based assessments along with the course work from the older system.

There is much that is good about the reforms, particularly the emphasis on learning how to learn and fostering real engagement with subjects. There is a sincere attempt to ease the pressure on students. It is not clear, however, that the good intentions of reducing stress are being realised.

Educational advisors get exasperated when teachers or parents point out that having two classroom-based assessments (CBAs) in every single Junior Cycle subject, with the second CBA worth approximately 10 per cent of the final mark, is challenging for students.

The advisors insist that these assessments are ‘low stakes’, the new buzzword which is applied to the CBAs and the Junior Cert exams themselves.

But for some reason, the Irish middle classes do not do low stakes when it comes to their children’s exams.

However, mocks for the Junior Cert may become a thing of the past, when that hybrid beast which currently is a strange mixture of the old and new morphs completely into the Junior Cycle in 2022.

Having a mock exam for a low-stakes exam would seem to be pretty pointless. The obvious question remains: how are students supposed to bridge the gap between the new low-stakes Junior Cycle exam and the still very high-stakes Leaving Cert?

Simultaneous reform of both exams would have been a great idea.

Do everything you can to reassure the student that their results are not going to define them

But it did not happen. Still, the lack of reform is not even close to explaining the extraordinary sense of stress, nicely illustrated by this wry tweet from a Bray student: “I had my first #LeavingCert nightmare last night. It was English Paper One and it was in French and I was Spiderman.”

Virtually everyone who ever sat the Leaving Cert knows what the nightmares are like for years afterwards.

Certainly, parents sometimes have unrealistic expectations, but in many cases, level-headed and caring parents look on aghast as their son or daughter whips himself or herself into a frenzy.

For example, the hashtag “mocks” brings you to sad places on Twitter. There are students begging for copies of the mock exams and others magnanimously offering them.

A more pointless exercise than cheating on the mocks by seeing the paper in advance could scarcely be imagined.

Sense of perspective

What can parents do? Stay calm, keep a sense of perspective and a sense of humour even if the student is melting down.

Quietly help the students to eat well and to get enough sleep and if you can pry the mobile or tablet out of their hands before 10pm you will be doing them a great favour.

The mocks are primarily about learning the correct timing of the various sections and to be sure that students know how to navigate the mandatory elements. There is plenty of time to improve.

Do everything you can to reassure the student that their results are not going to define them.

But in a world that judges you by numbers for the rest of your life – not just your points, but your weight, your salary and the postcode you live in – it may not be surprising that students do not believe us when we say that these particular numbers, the marks that they get, do not matter.

Maybe it is not so much the exams as our societal expectations that need reform.

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