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Students 'pressured' by new Leaving Cert grade scheme as number sitting higher level exams rises

The Economic and Social Research has carried out an early analysis of the grading scheme.
Jan 17th 2019, 6:01 AM 10,679 18

CHANGES TO THE Leaving Certificate grading scheme has led to an increase in the number of pupils sitting exams at higher level.

New research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) showed the positive early impacts of the revised grading scheme, which was introduced in June 2017.

However, the group has also warned that the new system is pressuring students into sitting exams at higher level when they may have previously not opted to do so.

Under the revised scheme, students are graded across 8 grade bands, replacing the previous system where students were graded across 14 bands.

Points are also awarded to candidates who receive a mark of 30-39% on higher level papers, which previously saw no points awarded.

The study found that overall, students chose to take up higher-level subjects, particularly Irish, English and Mathematics, more often in 2017 than they did in 2015 and 2016.

The number of students who sat higher level Mathematics rose from 28% in 2016 to 30% in 2017, while the numbers who sat higher level Irish rose from 42% in 2016 to 46% in 2017.

According to the researchers, students were motivated by the rewards of persevering with higher level courses, as they considered that the gap between points awarded for higher and ordinary level papers was too wide.

The findings also found a reduction in the number of students who were randomly awarded a course in higher education in 2017 as a result of the changes.

Selina McCoy, associate research professor with the ESRI, explained that while the number of students who are randomly awarded college courses is traditionally a low portion of the overall number of CAO applicants, the reduction was significant.

“Before the grading system changed, around 400-500 students were randomly selected across all levels every year,” she told

“But there was more than a 50% reduction for those who applied to Level 8 courses, for example, with 109 people randomly selected in 2017 compared to 281 people in 2016.”

The changes were introduced to ease pressure on students to achieve marginal gains in their exams, and the findings also indicated that students adapted to the new grading scheme without much difficulty.

However, the research also highlighted how students face challenges when making a decision over whether to sit a higher or ordinary level paper.

“With the incentives … they feel pressure to stay with higher level, even though they may feel ill-equipped,” McCoy said.

As a consequence, time on other subjects is displaced and additional stress is created for students.”

The research also revealed that the increase in the uptake of higher level subjects has led to a weakening of the overall grade profile, although this was an expected outcome.

In the cases of Mathematics and Irish, the increase in the number of students sitting higher-level papers led to a rise in the number of students attaining lower grades.

Maths was also singled out because of the bonus points awarded to those who achieve a result of more than 40%, which created an incentive for some students to sit the higher-level exam, even though they may not be able to pass the exam at higher level.

Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh said the research provided a valuable insight into the early impacts of the new system, adding that it would help shape future policy.

“We are still at an early stage of the reforms and we will need to continue to assess their impacts on students,” he said.

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Stephen McDermott


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