June 13, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Leave the Leaving alone, it has stood the test of time

When discussion began on how to conduct this year’s Leaving Cert exams I assumed the issues were about safety and space.

Could schools accommodate that number of students within the rules of social distancing? Would the mingling of teenagers before and after exams send Covid infection rates soaring?

But it seems these were not the problems at all. Schools are quite capable of staging the traditional exam for all their students and it looks like many will do that.

Under the new rules, every student who wants to sit the traditional Leaving Cert  will be allowed to do so, with accredited grades from their teachers as a back-up.

Since students can do the test both ways, and accept whichever mark is higher, most have declared their intention of doing just that. They have nothing to lose from taking the two routes and schools seem to be encouraging this each-way bet.

So, if schools can accommodate the traditional exam, why do we need a back-up system of calculated grades?

Teachers don’t like it because it lacks the impartiality of the straight exam. They had serious reservations about it last year. But in 2020 they did, at least, have some reasonable data from which to calculate the grades: mock exams, junior cert results, in-school projects. This year’s Leaving Cert class have not been in school since Christmas and their studies have been disrupted for an entire year, with remote learning the only option for much of the time.

So on what basis are teachers meant to calculate their calculated grades?

I can understand why  the students like the option. It’s a safety net and in this topsy-turvy year it will do no harm to let them have it.

But I worry that this year’s decision may be used in the future to undermine the Leaving Cert. It should not set a precedent for how our main second-level exam is conducted.

The Leaving is a blunt instrument for determining a young person’s future but the alternatives are worse.

Teacher projections open the possibility of bias and, regardless of rules against canvassing, that will always be the case in a small country like ours. How could it be otherwise when a teacher is grading the son of a neighbour or the daughter of a good friend?

Project work is less open to bias and should, perhaps, weigh more heavily in our exam calculations. But projects have their own unfairness, since they favour children whose parents are willing and able to help and schools with better facilities.

The Leaving Cert undoubtedly suits some kids more than others. It can favour one-off excellence over consistency and sometimes allows flair to trump hard work.

It’s not a perfect system but it has served the country well enough. It is fair and its rules are clear. The system is not broken and we should follow the advice of the old cliché, and be in no rush to fix it.

I’m not suggesting a change of tack on this year’s exams. The decision has been made to go with a dual system and it is best to stick to it. But I hope that by this time next year the only place we will hear mention of calculated grades is on a history paper.

 

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