Reforming the Leaving Certificate


A chara, – Clive Byrne draws an important distinction between “being educated” and “getting an examination grade” (“Leaving Cert reform should focus on ‘real world’ skills”, Opinion & Analysis, August 26th). Since the meanings of such examination grades have not been defined in terms of student learning outcomes, it is hardly surprising that students see them in terms of CAO points’ values – a sad commentary on our education system. In the absence of such definitions, the goalposts are movable from year to year as marks are massaged to ensure that patterns of grade distribution fit the normal curve. This means that standards are determined by the overall performance of the population taking a particular exam rather than by objective criteria made available in the public domain. For example, when the number of A grades is capped, able students are essentially in competition with each other and their individual rankings in particular subjects assume greater significance than the educational worth of their work. The narrowing of grade bands to 5 per cent during Mary O’Rourke’s time as minister for education, on grounds of administrative convenience, rendered futile any attempt at defining the meanings of grades. Arriving at meaningful distinctions between 15 letter grades across two or three levels would be an impossible task.

Now that the number of grades has been wisely reduced to eight, the development of clear criteria associated with each grade is somewhat more feasible. This would enable students, third-level colleges and the public to understand grades in an educationally meaningful way, while providing consistent criteria to guide students and their teachers and ensuring that students are neither advantaged or disadvantaged by the vagaries of the system.

This whole question of grading does, of course, raise the broader issue of our dependency on terminal, externally marked, examinations. Is it ever possible to define the meanings of grades that are arrived at by aggregating an individual student’s marks across large numbers of extremely diverse test items, answered under stressful and unreal conditions?

Clearly, the broader generic outcomes identified by Clive Byrne are not catered for in such a system. – Is mise,


Australian Catholic


Brisbane, Australia.