The Leaving Certificate – Communicate the plan and let it happen

The run up to the Leaving Certificate will undoubtedly be a challenging period for many students. Some adults might even consider it to be the most stressful exam they ever sat – so this year, with increased uncertainty around school closures and scheduling, there is obviously increased pressure being placed on our students.

One of the key reasons for this pressure is that students’ performance in these exams over a period of three weeks can have a large impact on future college and career choices. The cumulative work which they have put in over the last number of years is being assessed by their performance during these exams.

The recent review of the Leaving Certificate conducted by the ERSI as part of the NCCA Leaving Certificate review suggests that many young people and their parents feel that the three-week Leaving Certificate in June may no longer be fit for purpose – it causes significant stress for young people and prevents their developing other talents which they believe are equally important for them in their development as young people. And this was their view before the current pandemic hit!

It is, however, a significant backdrop to the current debate on the Leaving Certificate. While the Leaving Certificate exam enjoys great public trust as being fair, with Ireland being seen as providing one of the highest standards of second level education globally, many that are currently taking it see it as outdated, unnecessary and stressful.

Given the current pandemic, the calls for the cancellation of this year’s examinations are getting louder. There are suggestions that students should be given “predictive grades”. However, in this country, under our traditional system, we have no model for how predictive grades might be calculated; some suggest using various combinations of the house and mock examinations.

So, let’s address these two points. Although I run a mock examination company, I believe the notion of using school exams and mock exams as a terminal examination may be unfair, unworkable and unrealistic, and here are some of the reasons why:

1.      No two house exams or no two mock exams are the same. There are different mock exam companies and no two papers will ever be pitched exactly the same. Some may be on the light side, others may be on the challenging side – this is inevitable. In the State Exams this is managed through the marking scheme and the implementation of the bell curve. Therefore, for any given subject, suggesting that an equivalent mark in papers from different companies is the same without any standardisation or application of the bell curve is potentially very unfair on students.

2.      Mocks are not run to a standardised timetable across the country, therefore there is always potential for information leakage between schools and students and the exams are not as secure as the State exam process. The main purpose and real value of the mocks is the learning the students gain from the experience – how they would manage their time, manage the stress, respond to unexpected questions, etc.,  and in so doing better prepare them for the final State exams.

3.      Some teachers may direct their teaching in January and early February based on the material that is coming up in the mocks. Again, this is reasonable from a teacher’s perspective, if the teacher wishes to encourage the students and ensure they have at least enough material covered to adequately attempt the full paper. But again, this practice depends on the teachers –  others continue to teach towards the exam in June and just consider the mocks to be a checkpoint for the students along the way.

4.      In terms of house exams, sometimes there may be no uniformity within schools, and there is certainly no standardisation across schools. To use these as an input into the terminal exams retrospectively would not be fair on any student.

In other jurisdictions where teachers are grading their students’ work, there are clear standardised criteria that all submitted work must reach before a grade can be awarded. This needs to be in place before teachers can begin awarding grades. Even in countries like the UK, where they have the O levels, which are a combination of ongoing assessment and terminal examination, teachers had to provide proof of students’ work along with the predictive grade they are awarding this year as a replacement for the final exam. This is something that our system is currently not designed to do.

I am not against teachers assessing their own students. However, it has to be done with a proper system of checks and balances. Evidence has to be available to support grades being given, and as the system has not been designed that way, no such evidence is available.

I think it must be remembered that there are a large number of students who have worked for two years in preparation for the Leaving Certificate – in my mind, we should not deny them their opportunity to sit the examinations, if at all possible. They deserve their opportunity to shine, to evidence the work they have been doing. If the examinations don’t go ahead, their well-being will also be impacted. They will feel cheated in their efforts to date and will not see their Leaving Certificate grades as a true reflection of their effort and potential.

I believe every school in the country can run these examinations in a socially distant manner. The Department can hire two to three times as many supervisors, thus reducing the number of students in one room – ensuring smaller group sizes per examination hall.

Much of the current anxiety is caused by the information vacuum. Now the students need as much information as possible about the exams, so it is time to publish the timetable, give clarity about coursework, school opening and supports in July, etc.

While the current situation highlights the weaknesses of our over reliance on a terminal examination, with no plan B, we should not move to a system of “predictive grading” retrospectively and without all stakeholders having clarity on the checks and balances that apply to ensure we maintain a fair, transparent and quality assured system for all involved. I believe we must also realise that pressure on students will not be alleviated by ongoing assessments versus terminal assessments – this pressure to achieve and do well will always remain in any education system. As educators and parents, our responsibility is to help students cope better with these stressors and develop resilience in order to better prepare them for the challenges of the life ahead of them.

By Philip O’Callaghan, Managing Director of The Examcraft Group.