Getting to the point of the new CAO scale
A quiet revolution has been going on in relation to the Leaving Cert
While there has been much public fuss about changes ahead in the Junior Cert, a quieter revolution has been going on in relation to the Leaving Cert - one that affects every fifth year sitting in class today, and those coming up behind them.
A new Leaving Certificate grading system and, alongside that, a revised way of converting grades into CAO points, will apply from 2017.
It is the State Examinations Commission (SEC) that awards the grades in the Leaving Certificate, but the universities and institutes of technology control how those grades translate into points. They then use those points as a basis for ranking students for college entry through the CAO.
The current 14 grades, from A1 to NG, at both higher and ordinary level, are being reduced to eight broader bands, H1-H7 and O1-O7, which brings Ireland more in line with other countries.
Each grade band will cover a 10pc stretch (e.g. H3/70-79pc), rather than the current 5pc (B3/70-74pc and B2/75-79pc), which will take the pressure off students to be chasing a tiny number of marks here or there in order to achieve another 2-3pc, and a higher grade. It is the pursuit of those marginal gains that education experts say encourages rote learning.
However, trying to map the new grades on to the existing points scale would not work because, with each band now covering 10pc, more students would end up with the same points. As one of the aims of the exercise was to reduce the numbers tying on points, it would therefore make things worse.
Highly sophisticated maths was used to come up with the new CAO scale, which will reward effort and achievement and allow for greater differentiation between students.
The existing CAO scale goes up in standard steps of five points, except the current A1, which is worth 10 extra points. That means that all CAO scores are in multiples of five - for example 500, 505, 510 - which can lead to bunching of students, and the random selection of CAO applicants,who are on the same points for a particular college course.
The new scale is irregular, with 12 points separating H1 (100) and H2 (88), and then it goes down in steps of 11, 10 and nine.
So, a higher grade will attract not only more points, but at most steps there will be a points premium, giving a further edge to better performers.
The new scale will allow for any score between 0 and 625 (the 25 includes the maths bonus, which will continue to apply at 40pc/H6), such as 500, 501, 502, 503, 504, 505, rather than only 500 and 505.
One of the effects is that it will create distinctions between students who do better in some subjects, compared with those who have an even performance across a broader number of subjects.
For example, a student with 6HC1s gets 420 points and so does one with three HC3s and three HB2s. However, from 2017, while an applicant with 6H4s will be awarded 396 points, someone with three H3s and three H5s will have the edge, with 399, thanks to their H3s.
The other key feature is that a mark of 30-39pc (H7) on a higher level paper will accrue 37 points, the same as a new O3.
Grades of below 40pc were traditionally regarded as a 'fail', but that was considered unfair as a score in the 30pc range at higher level is regarded as the same standard as about 70pc or more on an ordinary level paper, which does earn points.
That particular change is about encouraging students not to relax in the comfort zone of ordinary level, if they have more ability.
Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, is full y behind the reforms and sees real benefits for students.
She has been explaining the changes this week to her own fifth years at Scoil Mhuire CBS, Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
According to Ms McLaughlin, the new emphasis in the scale on recognising higher achievement will allow students to play to their strengths.
She said that the 37 points for a H7 will "remove the fear factor" for wavering, though able, students who baulk at taking the 'honours' paper in case they come up slightly short and end up with no points in that subject.
She said that, at the very least, it will lead to students delaying any decision to drop back to ordinary level
Ms McLaughlin said that studying at higher level for the Leaving Cert develops analytical and critical thinking skills, leaving students much better equipped for further study and life generally.
While there has been a lot of focus on encouraging students to take up 'honours' maths, Ms McLaughlin said it is just as important to study other subjects at higher level, if the student has the ability.
She gives an example of French, where in the exams written tasks at higher level are much more demanding and not predictable.
"At ordinary level, the letter question can comprise a pre-written letter where the student fills in gaps from a list of words provided, as opposed to higher level where they are required to compose a well-constructed letter on a specified topic.
"Reading comprehension answers at ordinary level are 50pc in English, whereas at higher level they must all be constructed in French."
Meeting the minimum entry requirements
From 2017, in tandem with the changes to the Leaving Cert grading, the universities and institutes of technology will also introduce new basic matriculation requirements to take account of the new scheme.
These are the minimum grades and subjects required for entry to a course and students must meet these before points come into the equation.
Where the requirements are currently two higher level C3 grades and four ordinary level D3 grades, in 2017 these will become two H5s and four O6/H7 grades. Where the requirements are currently five ordinary level D3 grades, in 2017 these will become five O6/H7 grades.
Where the requirements are currently three higher level C3 grades and three ordinary level D3 grades, in 2017 these will become three H5 and three O6/H7 grades.