November 29, 2020
News

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Predicted grades fail the test, so leave the Leaving alone

Final year exam results were greeted with dismay and anger in the North, and across Britain, because the marks predicted by teachers for some students had been downgraded.

They had been adjusted in line with computer algorithms which took account of how schools performed in previous years and also favoured girls over boys, because girls usually do better in exams.

So if the predicted grades raised the level of a school, or its boys, it was assumed that, at best, the teachers had been too optimistic and, at worst, blatantly biased in favour of their own students.

The algorithms were designed to counter such bias. So Young Master Einstein, attending Roughboys Comprehensive, was  knocked back in favour of Little Miss Average, a student at Poshgirls Academy.

Across the country, this system averaged-out quite fairly. But parents do not think in terms of national averages;  they worry only about their own little geniuses. When the implications of the system dawned on the public there was an outcry which forced governments in Belfast, Edinburgh and London to scrap the weighted grading and go with the teachers’ predictions.

Our own Government says nothing of the sort can happen here because the method for marking the Leaving Certificate has been more carefully nuanced.

Really? Our system of Calculated Grades also relies on a combination of teacher predictions and past results. In the words of the Government’s own Citizens Information website: “The Department of Education and Skills has stated that calculated grades will be generated using a systematic statistical model. This model will use estimates of a student’s expected performance combined with the school’s statistical profiles of achievement in a subject, in line with national performance standards over time.”

I cannot see how that differs greatly from the British system. Even if it is more nuanced, I will be amazed if there is not a storm of protest and threats of legal action when the Leaving Cert results come out.

And I have no doubt that among those shouting loudest will be people who regularly tell us how outdated the Leaving Cert is and call for it to be scrapped. They should be careful what they wish for.

State exams are a blunt instrument for determining a young person’s future but the current kerfuffle has shown that the alternatives can be worse.

Teacher predictions do open the possibility of bias, particularly 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. It is not broken and we should follow the advice of the old cliché, and be in no rush to fix it.

Teacher predictions, with or without adjustments, are the best system available under Covid restrictions but I will be happy to see a return of the Leaving Cert, the exam that has passed the test of time.

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