The Leaving Cert starts today and the ensuing media circus that goes with it is in full swing. But why are we still putting faith in this absurd and unfair test?
Is the Leaving Cert and points system the best selection mechanism for higher education? Is it possible to devise a selection mechanism that’s fairer than the CAO? It’s transparent and objective but fair only if you believe it's fair that wealthier students can pay for grinds and extra tuition.
Apart from a handful of students in Libya, no other country is looking to our school-leavers' final exam as the panacea. Teachers and students know rote learning is the key to Leaving Cert success. Critical-thinking skills, teamwork and all the things employers say they are crying out for are beaten out of students in the race to maximise points.
Students learn off essays and sample answers and shoehorn them into whatever question appears on the day instead of demonstrating critical thinking or deep understanding of what they have learned.
Who is served by this? For students, learning a narrow range of material in a superficial way with no ability to analyse and evaluate the information means trouble when they hit third level. It doesn’t serve teachers either, as they have to condense subjects by focusing on what is likely to come up instead of encouraging higher-order or critical thinking.
Prof Chris Morash, Trinity College Dublin's vice-chancellor, recently hit upon the media's blanket coverage of the Leaving Cert, which is not replicated elsewhere.
“A lot of it has led to an expectation of special treatment around exams . . . Look at the media, too: if there’s a question that isn’t predicted in the Leaving, it’s treated as a national crisis in some quarters . . . This doesn’t happen elsewhere around the world; it’s bizarre,” he said.
The urban myth among students is that a female and an Irish poet always turn up on the Leaving Cert paper so woe betide the State Exams Commission if neither Eavan Boland nor Paul Durcan appear in this year's poetry question.
For students teachers and commentators it appears an unpredictable exam is a bad exam as it means students cannot rehash their learned-off, colour-coded notes or prepared essays.
Commenters on boards.ie sums up the bizarre fixation and navel gazing that surrounds the Leaving Cert.
“In recent years Plath appeared on the LC paper two years in a row - all bets are off - don’t take any risks - know five and you will be prepared for this section,” says one poster.
“I know this means nothing in reality but our English teacher has a feeling that Boland and Plath will make an appearance,” says another.
The perception that the exams are there to be predicted or gamed allows grind schools to thrive as they can claim to hold the secret to exam success.
The focus on the Leaving Cert as a preparation for college entry rather than an evaluation of learning has undoubtedly affected some of the disparities. A whole industry has grown around the provision of grinds, whose aim is for students to maximise grades rather than necessarily deepen understanding of a given subject.
The use of grinds also starkly illustrates the inequalities that give wealthier students a leg up. Nearly half of 17- and 18-year-olds surveyed by the ESRI for the Growing up in Ireland study took either one-to-one or group grinds. Nearly two-thirds of teenagers from homes in the highest income category did so, compared with a third in homes with the lowest incomes.
The problem is compounded by our points system, which allows students to work the system by taking “easier” subjects, where there is a higher probability of getting a higher grade, to gain as many points as possible.
It results in what are objectively more difficult courses requiring far lower points, so you have a bizarre situation where weaker students can get in to these courses but brighter students face a bun fight for their course simply due to demand or because the courses lead to careers held in higher regard by Irish parents.
A report by former UCC vice-president Aine Hyland, Entry to Higher Education in the 21st Century, suggesting possible Leaving Cert reforms, may as well have fallen down behind a radiator on Marlborough street.
Among its suggestions were less reliance on the Leaving Cert as an entry to college courses, less early specialisation by first-year college students. This is happening with broader arts courses in UCD and Maynooth but dropout rates across the higher-education sector remain relatively high.
A more comprehensive set of predictors than Leaving Cert results is needed to ensure our colleges are more diverse and social mobility can be achieved. Contextual information such as family background, work experience, subject weightings, college assessment, interviews and even a lottery system could all be considered. Many of these selection mechanisms have been tried, or are still in use for some courses in the CAO system.
While more than 90 per cent of school-leavers in affluent areas such as Dublin 6 are going to college, this falls to as low as 15 per cent in more disadvantaged districts such as Dublin 17. Until children from Ranelagh see as many of their peers from Darndale at freshers' week we cannot keep pretending educational apartheid does not run deep.