The Leaving Cert – outsourcing a debacle

 

Sir, – Having been informed of errors in Leaving Cert calculated grades over a week ago, Minister for Education Norma Foley decided not to inform her colleagues, the Dáil, the public, or the students that may be affected until she had full information about the debacle.

In her press conference on Wednesday, the Minister said she didn’t know how exactly many students were affected, didn’t know how many were to have their grades altered, didn’t know how many students would receive improved CAO offers, didn’t know how many students might need to be offered deferred places for lack of course places this year, and didn’t know when the whole situation would be clarified or concluded. It seems there was little real explanation for not informing all relevant parties when the Minister first heard of the problem a week ago. – Yours, etc,

FINTAN REDDY,

Castleknock,

Dublin 15.

Sir, – The main emphasis in discussions about the errors in the Leaving Cert results has naturally focused on the students whose marks were wrongly reduced. However, there will also be a number of students – the exact number is not yet known – whose marks were wrongly inflated by the flawed process. The Government has already decided that these students will keep the inflated marks.

I can understand that a student in this position should keep any CAO place already offered. However their results (not their 2020 CAO points) should be corrected as otherwise these students will have an unfair advantage over students in CAO rounds in later years.

Grade inflation in general this year has already created an unfair competition for next year’s students. Allowing students to keep high marks allocated through a faulty algorithm will add to this unfairness. – Yours, etc,

DONAL McGRATH,

Greystones,

Co Wicklow.

Sir, – The Fianna Fáil-led Government outsourced the design and implementation of the algorithm for awarding estimated grades to a company in Canada, and we are left with thousands of students suffering needlessly.

The effects of this on students cannot be exaggerated.

The only winners here are private companies and consultants whose bank balances grow bigger at the expense of the Irish taxpayer and the welfare of our students. – Yours, etc,

GARY HONER,

Abbeyside,

Dungarvan,

Co Waterford.

Sir, – Ministerial statements that software-coding faults by an independent company caused errors in the Leaving Certificate calculated grades process are misleading.

User acceptance testing (UAT), which is the last phase of the software testing process, was deficient.

The responsibility for approving UAT outcomes always lies with the client; in this case, the Department of Education and Skills. – Yours, etc,

PAUL REARDON,

Dublin 9.

Sir, – The Minister for Education has revealed that two errors were made in the coding used to produce calculated grades: the two worst optional Junior Cert subjects were used rather than the two best and civic, social and political education was included when it should not have been. These errors are quite simply astounding. Computers work on a garbage in, garbage out principle. We are dealing with human failure. Will the Department of Education publish the precise instructions given to Polymetrika in relation to the design of the algorithm and the robustness of testing?

Students must not be the only ones downgraded in this debacle. – Yours, etc,

DERVAL DUGGAN,

Kilternan,

Dublin 18.

Sir, – Minister for Education Norma Foley’s comment about “One line of code in 50,000” is facile and ill-informed. Previous software disasters, for example the loss of Ariane Flight 501 in 1996, amply illustrate the devastating effect of relatively small coding errors, which should have been found in testing.

One wonders why presumably extensive testing with simulated data did not reveal the error in this case. – Yours, etc,

Dr SIMON WOODWORTH,

Programme Director,

MSc Cyber Risk

for Business,

University College Cork.

Sir, – All computer coding contains errors. The key issue is what procedures are in place to detect and correct such normal human failings. Given that one of the disclosed errors in the Leaving Cert estimated grades process would have affected virtually every student in that their two best subjects, apart from the core subjects of Irish, English and Maths, would be different from their two worst subjects, it is extremely difficult to envisage a situation where the most rudimentary sample or macro controls would not detect this particular error. Such controls are an essential integral element of any such process. – Yours, etc,

FERGAL MOLLOY,

Strawberry Beds,

Dublin 20.

Sir, – The fact that thousands of this year’s Leaving Certificate students received lower grades than they ought to have received has been attributed to coding errors. This makes it sound as if a technical impersonal fault has caused this problem. Micheál Martin has described it as “a technical issue linked to coding”.

However, human error and mismanagement are central to all aspects of this situation. Coding errors are inevitable in developing any computer based system. Good system management protects against this by rigorous testing of the computer-produced results with the output specifications. With the consequences of this exercise having such a critical effect on the education of so many students, the results of the algorithm should have been manually checked by the Department of Education for a large and representative sample of pupils across a wide variety of schools. This would have quickly indicated that something was wrong.

Fault lies with the company tasked with coding and testing the algorithm. In addition, senior civil servants should have instigated a comprehensive manual examination of the initial result, either internally or by subcontracting to an independent organisation and should have advised their Minister accordingly. The Minister and the Taoiseach should have insisted on detailed briefing from their civil servants that all of the above had been thoroughly carried out.

The coding company’s fee should be drastically reduced. Unfortunately, there is little or no history of errors, mismanagement or underperformance being penalised in the public service.

As for the Minister and the Taoiseach, the remedy is in our hands come election time. – Yours, etc,

JACK MORRISSEY,

Dublin 16.