Leaving Certificate Examination Grades

In a decade the percentage of CAO applicants with more than 450 points has almost doubled.  Prior to 1995 it was most exceptional for any student to achieve the six A1 Leaving Cert grades necessary to produce the highest possible score of 600 CAO points; yet last year 145 students did.

At face value this would suggest that there has been a remarkable quality transformation, either as a result of an increase in student IQ or an astonishing improvement in the school system.

While one would hope that both may have contributed to some extent to the grade inflation that has taken place during the past decade it is more likely that other factors dominate. The abolition of third-level fees in 1996 has permitted parents to invest in grinds and special courses for their children.  Students and parents may also be receiving expert guidance in selecting the six subjects likely to optimise points.  There is good reason to question whether some subjects have been ‘dumbed down’, or whether a large proportion of high grades are given in certain subjects as an inducement to encourage participation

What impact does the grade inflation have on students competing for the high entry-point courses?  None: where competition for admission is intense the CAO system still awards available places to the students with the highest scores. However at the other end of the spectrum grade-inflation boosts CAO points and some students who would not meet minimum requirements previously now make it over the threshold.  This outcome is hardly surprising given the 20 percent drop in school output and the 50 percent increase in third-level places that has taken place during the past decade. Indeed the outcome is totally predictable: as Ireland moves to increase the proportion of school leavers who go on to higher education it can be expected that opportunities will be opened up for those who are less academically gifted.

The Leaving Certificate is a strange beast.  It has evolved over the years as a result of the interplay between the Department of Education and various interest groups that control components of the curriculum and examination system. The examination, which has served us well over the years, is however riven with the most extraordinary inconsistencies.  Certain subjects are notoriously demanding and others less so. Certain subjects regularly secure a high proportion of A grades, others do not.

Despite my best efforts during years chaired the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment I had little impact on the wild grade variations.  Where small numbers of students sit an examination there may be statistical justification for some variation, but not the kind exhibited by the Leaving Certificate. For example, last year 82 percent of those who took Higher Level Russian got A1 grades compared to 4 percent of those who did the equivalent English exam. Twenty three percent were awarded A grades in Italian Higher as opposed to only 14 percent in Spanish. There are also wild grading swings from year-to-year, even in subjects with large participation, where no more than minor statistical variation should arise.  For example in Higher Biology, with over 16,000 students, the number of A grades awarded last year dropped by 26 percent. This of course represents statistical nonsense and highlights the arbitrariness of Leaving Certificate grading.  Students who just missed getting A grades last year were unlucky…and in some cases future career paths were profoundly altered as a result.

What should be done?  Well, the answer is very simple, but those who enjoy exercising arbitrary influence in their subject areas don’t like it much.  The introduction of a normalised grading system would bring statistical rigor and remove the whimsy from the system and the associated unfairness to students. Based on a Gaussian distribution, a fixed percentage of grades from A to E would be awarded.  If necessary F grades could be placed outside the system and reserved for those who clearly did not make any adequate effort.  Some flexibility could be provided when participating numbers are small.

Under the normalised system, if the specified percent of A grades was fixed at 12 percent of the total, say, those who received an A would then be recognised as amongst the top 12 percent of those who sat the exam. The same consistency would apply to all subjects every year.

Such an initiative would eliminate grade inflation, discourage students from selecting subjects on the basis of grading anomalies and eliminate the volatile grade swings from year to year that randomly penalise students.

The need for policy makers to keep track of Irish academic standards should be addressed by introducing international subject assessment teams. So many initiatives in education require significant additional expenditure and lengthy consultation; this requires neither and could be acted upon now.

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