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A reminder of how the Leaving Cert Calculated Grades system works, and the rationale behind it

Here is the thought process behind the Plan C for the Leaving Cert, the appeal process, and where it could all go wrong.

Students celebrate their Leaving Cert results in 2018.
Students celebrate their Leaving Cert results in 2018.
Image: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

THE CALCULATED GRADE system that is meant to replace Leaving Cert exams is complicated, but it’s important to understand properly before deciding whether the assessment process is fair.

There has been increased concern this week that the system could be unfair to students, after a furore erupted in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland over the grades issued to students there.

There are three main parts to the Calculated Grades in Ireland: The teachers’ assessment, the standardisation using State Examinations Commission data, and the appeals process.

There are pluses and minuses to the system – here’s the breakdown of what is involved, and what’s the rationale behind having it that way.

Why the Leaving Cert was cancelled

leaving-cert-exams-to-start The locked box containing exam answer booklets in the exam hall in Stratford College in Dublin. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

In recent weeks, a number of people have suggested that the Leaving Cert written exams should have been held in July or August as had been planned.

Although a valid argument, it leaves out some of the reasoning why the decision was taken in May to cancel the Leaving Cert written exams.

If the written exams were held during the summer, the Covid-19 conditions put in place would be so constraining that the exams would not be the Leaving Cert that students had prepared for (a three-hour exam cut down to an hour-and-a-half).

There was also a huge amount of pressure being placed on students to continue to study and learn at home in the midst of a pandemic, with some students disadvantaged by a weak internet connection or an absence of support without the schooling system.

The Department of Education argued that the current Calculated Grades model allowed the vast bulk of 61,000 sixth-year students to move on with their lives – be that into higher education, into further education, or into the world of work.

Calculated Grade: Teachers

8814 Leaving certificate exams Pupils from Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun prepare to sit the Leaving Cert exam, 2017. Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

A calculated grade is instead based on two main sets of data; it is not a predicted grade, which is more arbitrary way of estimating a student’s score.

The first is the secondary-school teachers themselves. With the absence of exams, teachers are the next best way of assessing what percentage mark a student would have achieved if the Leaving Cert had taken place this year.

They will have seen the students’ work ethic, talent and progress for at least two years of their senior cycle, and possibly five or six years in total.

So they are asked to give each student a percentage mark based on what they would have achieved in the Leaving Cert exam if it had taken place as normal. This is different to the UK, which only asked teachers to give a grade.

Among the material they will use to review, are Christmas or summer tests, interim tests during fifth and sixth year, project work, assignments, and Mock exams.

They are also asked to rank the students in order of how likely they are to have achieved a certain grade. The idea behind the ranking system is to decide who is most likely to get a grade, and by extension, get a place at a university or college, or other third-level institution. 

For each student, the teacher will complete a form where they record four pieces of evidence used in their judgement as to why a student received a certain score.

If one of those pieces of evidence cites scores out of line with the others, and with the final mark given by the teacher, the teacher can record the reason why that happened (ie, the student was ill).

The Department’s trust in teachers is based on research that suggests teachers can make an accurate estimation of their students’ grades when they know the exam very well, which teachers would in relation to the Leaving Cert, and because teachers have a code of practice in their profession.

The principal and other teachers

leaving-cert-exams-to-start Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

There are two steps after the teacher awards a student a percentage, and before that score goes to the Department of Education’s National Standardisation Group for ‘standardisation’:

  • In-school alignment: This is where the teacher who awarded their Leaving Cert students a percentage confer with other teachers of the same subject in their school about whether changes need to be made to the marks given. For example, a group of Geography teachers would confer on how percentages were allocated to a Leaving Cert Geography class.
  • School principal: The principal will be an important part of the school process, the Department believes. They will assess those marks and may confer with the teacher group on the decisions made.

Calculated Grade: Standardisation

The second piece of data they have is information held by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) about the students and their schools.

Education Minister Norma Foley said on 16 July: “Over 450,000 individual grades have to be prepared and checked and the outcomes need to be reviewed using different demographic characteristics which will include gender and socio-economic status to ensure that the grades are as fair and equitable as possible.”

Taking the gender of candidates into consideration means that if females generally tend to perform better in a particular subject, this will be taken into account for this year’s Leaving Cert standardisation.

The Department of Education’s argument against the unfairness of standardisation is that they are not imposing a single historic pattern of data on top of teachers’ estimated scores. Instead they are using several pieces of data, with one influenced by the student themselves (their Junior Cert results).

 

The standardisation is to ensure fairness to previous and future Leaving Cert years, by bringing them in line with one another. Though this could be argued as being unfair, as the Department of Education states, this is not unusual:

The Leaving Certificate results from any one year are considered equivalent to the results from any other year. This is because the results each year are subject to a process of national standardisation through the marking processes undertaken by the State Examinations Commission.

The teachers’ estimated scores and ranking for the current Leaving Cert year is cross referenced against the following sets of data from the SEC:

  • National-level data for both Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate examinations for 2019 and previous years;
  • School-level data for both Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate examinations for 2019 and previous years;
  • Student-level data for both Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate examinations for 2019 and previous years;
  • Student-level data for the Junior Certificate results of the 2020 Leaving Certificate cohort of candidates.

It’s understood that high grades will not be ‘rationed’ in the standardisation process.

Appeals process

78 NO FEE Education Briefing Harold Hislop and Education MInister Joe McHugh announcing the postponement of the Leaving Cert. Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The appeals process is limited, but also more open than that offered to students in the UK. 

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If a student is unhappy with their Calculated Grade, they can check that the data was correctly handled between the school, and within the Department of Education as part of the standardisation process, but they cannot review the percentage mark given by the teacher.

The Department of Education’s Chief Inspector Harold Hislop explained the reasoning behind this: “When you think about it, if that score was allowed to be reopened, there would be an incredible pressure on the teacher to increase that score.”

It would effectively mean that the Irish State would ask a teacher to rethink a student’s grade, with the implication being that they should increase that grade.

So if students wish to appeal their Calculated Grade, they can also sit a written Leaving Cert exam after the current academic year begins.

If students do appeal their Calculated Grades, appellants can access an online portal on Monday 14 September where students will be able to see a record of their individual estimated percentage mark and ranking assigned to them by their school.

It’s unclear when students will be able to sit their Leaving Cert exams (November has been suggested), nor whether it would be their full exam – this is because it is dependent on the number who do appeal.

The CAO will be treating these Leaving Cert results like any other Leaving Cert year. This includes the requirement to achieve a certain grade in a subject to qualify for a course, eg, if you need a C in Biology to get into a certain course, you still need that.

The numbers are expected to be similar to how they were in previous years, but flexibility is being sought for high-demand courses to allow for an increase in high achievers.

Leaving Cert results are to be issued on 7 September, with the first round of CAO offers to be issued on 11 September. 

You can read more about the Department of Education’s approach to the Calcualted Grades system here.

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