Breda O’Brien: We apologise to Leaving Cert class of 2020

Global pandemic prohibits easy answer to question of when to hold final exams

Irish students might think predicted grades are the best solution until they get the results. If they feel they are unfair, what then? Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Irish students might think predicted grades are the best solution until they get the results. If they feel they are unfair, what then? Photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

Leaving Cert students are now like marathon runners who could see the finish line but then are told that they will be running not 42km but 50km. It is not fair.

However, the alternatives may be even worse. Irish students have been clamouring for predicted grades. Ironically, in the UK, where predicted grades will be used, great concern has been expressed about their pitfalls. Half of English students believe they will fare worse.

In a literature review, Ofqual, which supervises examinations and educational qualifications in England, estimated that in relation to GCSE, AS and A levels, about half of students received the same grade in exams as the predictions, about one-third received a lower grade, and one-sixth received a higher grade. And that’s in a system where teachers, unlike Ireland, have been trained and using this method for years.

Research by University College London Institute of Education found only 16 per cent received exactly their predicted A-level grades. Other UK research found that predicted grades were particularly inaccurate for lower socio-economic groups, including black and minority ethnic students. Teachers consistently underestimated what these students would achieve. Given that applications to universities are based on predicted grades, this meant that some students do not even apply for particular third-level courses even though their eventual results would make them eligible.

The Runnymede Trust, a racial equality charity, is so concerned about this that it recently wrote an open letter to the UK minister for education, signed by prominent academics, asking that measures be put into place to protect minority students from underestimated grades. One of the categories of students the trust singled out were Irish Traveller students.

Grade prediction

The system for predicted grades in the absence of A levels is already quite complex. Schools will be asked not only to predict grades based on work (including mock exams) done before March and students’ GCSE results, but also to rank their applicants in strict order according to their academic performance. Ofqual will then adjust the grades using the school’s previous performance and the expected national grade distribution for the subject as reference points.

The grades that a school submits might be quite different to those that are awarded in the end. There will be an appeal process but no one has any idea what shape it will take. 

In the UK, the grades a school submits might be quite different to those that are awarded in the end

Students will be allowed to sit their exams in autumn 2020 and, if their results are worse, they will be entitled to retain the estimated grade. These exams will clash with the time universities normally reopen so it is not at all clear whether students who opt to sit A levels will be able to go to university that year. 

Irish students might think predicted grades are the best solution until they get the results. If they feel they are unfair, what then? What might an appeal process look like?

Some schools, particularly in middle-class areas, would be under immense pressure to deliver high grades. Given that grades can only be estimated on previous work, the students who pull out all the stops at the last minute will be at a disadvantage.

Logistical issues

However, pointing out the pitfalls of predicted grades is not to suggest for a minute that holding the examinations in August is fair, either. 

A whole series of logistical questions remain to be answered. Some of them were ably flagged by Leaving Cert student Adam Johnson. There have been suggestions that it might be prudent to hold only one exam a day to prevent students congregating. There are some 40 individual exams in the traditional Leaving Cert, so that would mean the Leaving Cert would extend well into September.

There have been suggestions it might be prudent to hold only one exam a day to prevent students congregating

And how are we supposed to prevent students congregating in the two weeks in school leading up to the examinations? Not to mention that one teacher or student who comes down with Covid-19 during those two weeks may be enough to put an entire cohort into self-isolation. 

This is one reason not to have the two weeks of classes immediately before the exams. Many schools in normal times allow Leaving Cert students to finish term early so that they can focus on studying in the immediate run-up to the exam. The current proposal is designed to do exactly the opposite.

Those already suffering from economic or social disadvantage are the ones most likely to be adversely affected by sitting late examinations. Some young people exist in chaotic conditions at the best of times and school is their safe place. In schools where the majority of students fall into this category, should the focus be taken off younger year groups to enable teachers to work in smaller groups with Leaving Cert students? Should home school liaison support be doubled or trebled for the next few months?

There are no good solutions to conundrums such as how to hold an exam like the Leaving Cert in a time of global pandemic. We are sorry, class of 2020. All I can tell you is that most teachers I know will do their very best to make this awful mess work for you.

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