State exam marking system


Sir, – Michael O’Leary, writing on the need to make the State exam marking system more robust, identifies an important issue (Opinion & Analysis, January 16th). Two points he makes should be contested.

He states that marking schemes may be altered by reducing the number of marks awarded to difficult questions. This is counter-intuitive. State exams are marked by norm referencing. The standard of answering and the marking scheme devised will be set by the norm of answering submitted by candidates each year. Thus a question will be identified as difficult when significant numbers of candidates answer it poorly, achieving low marks. The marking response here would be to revise the marking scheme by redistributing marks where appropriate, not awarding fewer marks, as Prof O’Leary suggests.

It is difficult to fathom, in the worked example provided, how reducing the marks would lead to a candidate on lower marks reaching a higher grade. Also, it is rare and exceptional that a candidate would drop a grade in the normal course of marking. Grade boundaries are notoriously challenging to get right and are the subject of much discussion when designing marking schemes and training examiners.

The use of a mathematical transformation of marks achieved by candidates to scaled scores has often been suggested. While it can work well in subjects where marking is relatively straightforward and objective (maths and sciences), it may prove too simple a solution to a complex problem in the case of subjects where marking is as much an art as a science, such as English and history, for example.

The State Examinations Commission has an excellent and deserved reputation for high standards. Predictably, problems regularly arise. A more open discussion of these would benefit all concerned. – Yours, etc,



Co Clare.

Sir, – Over a million individual grades were awarded last year in the Junior and Leaving examinations. Of those, unforeseen problems arose in 160 cases – a vanishingly small percentage of the total. These problems were resolved by reference to the affected individuals’ performance in school in comparison with their peers, a process which is closely supervised by both the SEC and school authorities. As a former school principal, I cannot understand the fuss being made about this (“State exams body defends practice of issuing ‘estimated’ grades”, News, January 16th). It is a fair way to deal with a very small proportion of problems, far fairer, in my view, that the alternative of obliging the already anxious student to sit a substitute paper at a later stage in the examinations with all of the attendant risk of the substitute being “harder” or “easier” than the original.

Like my former colleagues in the National Association for Principals and Deputy Principals, I have many reservations about our examination system, but this is not one of them. – Yours, etc,


Malahide, Co Dublin.