Plans for Leaving science projects

We need a fairer, more viable and workable assessment framework

Sir, – The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is holding a consultation on the new Leaving Certificate science specifications. These are a great improvement on earlier drafts, particularly with regard to the specification of subject content regarding learning outcomes. However, the arbitrary proposal to allocate 40 per cent of the marks to a research project is controversial. I have spent over 50 years in science education and have seen many fashions come and go. The use of coursework in the final assessment is no longer seen as viable as it open to widespread abuse. It is hard to mark objectively, it is heavily influenced by parental background, and AI will only make things worse. Research projects, even at third level, are notoriously hard to grade fairly and objectively, which is why they are rarely given a numerical mark. A research project, based on a written report, will be almost impossible to grade fairly and objectively, and will be open to external inputs.

There are other problems. Allocating 40 per cent of the marks for a single coursework element taking 20 hours, 11 per cent of teaching time, imbalances the final assessment and devalues the time spent on the rest of the course. A coursework element, if included, should be no more than 20 per cent of the marks.

But there are other major problems with a research project. Think of the resource implications.

In 2023, a total of 51,878 papers in biology, chemistry and physics were examined, and many students take two or three of these subjects. This means that the State Examinations Commission has to find markers for all these research reports, a much more difficult task than marking the written exams, even if it is possible to do reliably. This is a massive logistics problem. There are even bigger potential logistics problems in the schools. Many schools already have inadequate resources for teaching practical science – equipment, chemicals, laboratories – and very few have technicians, a necessary requirement for effective practical work. There are vast disparities in resources between fee-paying schools and Deis schools, for example, so that the conduct of project work will not be fair across all schools. Fitting all the LC science students doing a project into available laboratory space, and providing equipment and chemicals, will be a major, if not impossible, challenge in most schools. Teachers will be overloaded, and their students will be overloaded as many will have more than one project to do in the same time period. Students may well feel that they are wasting their time on the other 160 hours of the course for only 60 per cent of the marks, whose completion within the two years puts large pressures on students and teachers.


The teacher unions are unlikely to support this proposal, and the NCCA subject development groups should go back to the drawing board and come up with a fairer, more viable and workable assessment framework. – Yours, etc,