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Leaving Cert students say they are relieved with clarity and choice, but some issues remain

“I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust the algorithm,” one student said.

File image of a Leaving Cert exam.
File image of a Leaving Cert exam.

A DECISION WAS reached yesterday on this year’s Leaving Certificate, with students having the option to sit an exam in each subject or receive a calculated grade.

Students who opt to sit an exam would receive whichever result is higher between the two, according to plans finalised by Education Minister Norma Foley. 

Foley said the proposals offered “a system that is fair and that provides the opportunity for real progression for students”. 

Students have said they are relieved a plan is in place, but some uncertainties remain about making the right decisions. 

Aoife Devlin, a Leaving Cert student from Sligo, said that the finalised plan made her “happier than I thought I would be”. 

“I just felt so happy. I couldn’t stop smiling – not because of being ecstatic about the plan, but just having a plan,” she told TheJournal.ie. 

She said she will choose to sit the exams in June, a decision slightly hindered by the fact that her peers who opt for calculated grades “will be sitting out in the sun” during the exam period. 

Devlin said she would be “so upset” with herself if she didn’t go down this route in light of last year’s errors found with the algorithm used to calculate Leaving Cert grades. 

“I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust the algorithm,” she said. 

The system for calculated grades was designed last year to give Leaving Cert students grades based on the work they had done to date, the teacher’s knowledge of their students’ abilities, and a standardisation of grades to bring them in line with previous Leaving Cert results.

Teachers used their students’ past exam results, essays, project work and practicals to assess what grade students would have received if they had sat the traditional Leaving Cert. 

The Department of Education then ‘standardised’ the grades, in an attempt to bring them in line with other Leaving Cert results. This would be done using an algorithm.

After students received their calculated grades, and after the first round of college courses were offered, two errors in the calculated grade algorithm was found, which affected thousands of students.

An issue causing confliction among students, Devlin said, is the decision to hold oral and practical elements as part of the written Leaving Cert exams for those who decide to take them.

These are due to take place over a number of days during the Easter break or thereafter, the Department of Education said yesterday.

The oral and practical exams will not be included in the calculated grades process, the Department of Education said. 

Devlin said this decision was currently putting off a lot of her classmates from choosing the exam option, as they feel under-prepared and “petrified” for the oral examinations. 

The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) described this decision as “regrettable and regressive”. 

The union said these oral and practical components should also be applied to the calculated grade marks.

More than 8 out of 10 students say they intend to sit at least one of their subjects as a written exam, according to a survey carried out by Irish study website Studyclix.ie between yesterday evening and this morning. 

Half of the 3,200 students surveyed said they were unhappy the practical and oral exams were going ahead. 

71% of students said they do not trust that the calculated grades system will accurately give them a result that reflects their ability.

Clarity 

A Leaving Cert student from Galway, Shane Farragher, said the options for this year’s Leaving Certificate will be “beneficial for everyone involved”.  

However, he criticised the time it took to reach this decision, saying this caused further “distress” to students. 

“I think it’s rather disappointing that it did take this long,” Farragher said, particularly when it comes to being more prepared for the oral examinations. 

“If this announcement was made eight weeks earlier and a decision on the Leaving Cert was in place before the lockdown… students could have had time to prepare a decision in regards to orals,” he said. 

Farragher added that he will likely choose to sit all the exam papers, and that some students are taking a “step back and saying they have nothing to lose by taking the papers” as the best result will be selected in the end. 

Choic 

An Irish Second Level Students Union (ISSU) survey from last month found that over 81% of respondents wanted to give Leaving Cert students a choice between calculated grades or sitting in-person exams in June.

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ISSU president Reuban Murray said yesterday’s decision has “brought clarity” and choice to students. 

“It will take that pressure off them, especially given the fact that they have only been in for three months of their Leaving Cert year,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“It is a good proposal and it’s what students have been asking for.” 

He said the union has received hundreds of messages and emails from students since yesterday evening asking questions about the plans. 

“In essence, students are pleased and happy to see there has been a choice offered when this wasn’t even on the table a month ago,” he said.

In terms of timing, Murray said it would have been “far better” to have reached this decision sooner, but this may not have resulted in the “best solution” to the issue. 

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said it was “bitterly disappointed” that the accredited grades system is not underpinned by externally validated elements like coursework or projects. 

Calculated grades are this year referred to as SEC-Accredited Grades. 

An ASTI spokesperson said these grades “will prove a very challenging proposition for all concerned given the lack of credible data”.

“The unavailability of an option for students to undertake externally validated second components, coursework, project work, orals and aurals if they opt to choose the pathway of SEC Accredited Grades adds to this omission and is a regrettable injustice for these students,” they said. 

The TUI has also expressed some concerns and disappointment about the plans for this year’s Leaving Certificate. 

“The fundamental belief of the TUI is that the Leaving Certificate continues to be the gold standard that enjoys public confidence and national and international credibility. Our demand that it not be set aside, as had been sought from certain quarters, has been vindicated,” it said yesterday. 

“However, while acknowledging the decision to proceed with the Leaving Certificate examinations in June and recognising the need for a system of accredited grades as a contingency, given the ongoing public health emergency, the union tonight expressed significant reservations and deep disappointment about elements of the decision.”  

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