Even in normal times the Leaving Cert is a challenging rite of passage for secondary school students. These, however, are not normal times. The class of 2022 has faced significant disruption over the past two years, including school closures and high levels of pupil and teacher absences for Covid reasons.
The level of disruption was not equal. Online tuition varied significantly and engagement rates differed. Many students did not have access to qualified teachers in key subject areas. Students from disadvantaged areas, in particular, faced challenges accessing digital devices and finding quiet study areas.
In an effort to make up for learning loss, the Department of Education says additional choice has been built into written exams in 2022. Oral exams will now take place during Easter holidays – minimising disruption to tuition – while there is greater flexibility on deadlines for coursework. A second set of exams will be held in the summer for anyone unable to attend.
Nevertheless, many students feel unprepared. A survey conducted by the Irish Second Level Students’ Union indicates that about two out of three senior cycle students would prefer a hybrid option with a choice between teacher-assessed grades and traditional exams. Teachers’ unions, who are opposed to assessing their own students for State exams, insist there is no justification for alternatives to written exams . However, it made similar arguments in recent years and did not stand in the way of students.
Minister for Education Norma Foley has said she will listen to the views of all stakeholders in coming to a decision. At the very minimum, adjustments made to the exams – announced last August – should be revisited to see if they go far enough to reflect the level of disruption students have faced. Student calls for a hybrid system also deserve serious scrutiny. There are unanswered questions over the option. How will it work? Will it be reliable? Is further grade inflation inevitable? And, most importantly, will it be fair to all students? An informed discussion and analysis of this option is needed urgently.
More broadly, changes to assessment during the pandemic have given us a glimpse of what a different type of Leaving Cert could look like with extended opportunities to demonstrate learning and written exams in less pressurised conditions. They also helped level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It would be a monumental shame if we ignored this.
In the meantime, further changes to assessment arrangements must embrace principles of equity, fairness and integrity. This year’s students have endured the kind of disruption and uncertainty on a level that is similar, if not greater, to the class of 2020 and 2021. It is only right that their voice is listened to.