Thursday 8 December 2016

New Leaving Certificate grading plan deserves only 29 out of 100

In my opinion...

James McDermott

Published 20/05/2015 | 02:30

'Leaving Certificate students will be positively rewarded for failure'
'Leaving Certificate students will be positively rewarded for failure'

The proposal to award CAO points for a mark between 30pc and 39pc means that, for the first time, Leaving Certificate students will be positively rewarded for failure.

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With grade-inflation so well-established, the next logical step in the inexorable dumbing down of our education system is grade-band deflation, with the effective pass mark for "honours" subjects now being 30pc in the eyes of many students. The apparent logic behind this decision is that it will encourage students to attempt the "higher" paper if they know that they will receive some points, even if they fail to actually pass it.

The current pass mark is a far-from-onerous 40pc, meaning that you can pass an exam in circumstances where your performance is so poor that the answers that you provided are more wrong than right. If anything, we should be removing this discrepancy by raising the pass mark to at least 50pc.

Secondly, if a student is concerned that they might be falling short in a particular subject, then they have two reasonable options open to them. The preferable option is to attempt to improve their performance through a combination of better teaching and harder work. The other option is to take a realistic view of their abilities and sit the ordinary level paper.

If a student is unwilling to attempt an exam on the basis that they can get 60pc of it wrong and still pass, but might be prepared to chance their arm if they can get 70pc of it wrong and still secure points, then what rational basis is there for considering them to be a "higher level" student? If a doctor got their diagnosis wrong 70pc of the time, they would be struck off the register.

It is depressing that, having identified a deficit between the minimum acceptable exam performance and actual student performance, the Government's preferred solution lies in lowering the former rather than raising the latter.

You cannot improve Ireland's performance in the Olympic 100 metres by reducing the length of the running track here to 90 metres. That might speed up the times for a while, but our athletes would find themselves standing still when they compete internationally. So too with students; a pass mark of 30pc will not get you far when you are competing with Asian students for college places or jobs.

The other key proposal, to reduce the number of possible grades from 14 to eight, is also unwelcome. The reason that narrow grading bands were introduced over two decades ago was to help identity often subtle differences in exam performance and to reward students accordingly.

This is currently done by grading in divisions of five marks. Under the new regime, each grade will cover a spread of 10 marks meaning that a student who gets 79pc will be no better off than one who gets 70pc, which is unfair.

It could also lead to greater randomness when it comes to allocating college places where even with the current five mark divisions in grade the last few places on high-demand courses are often awarded by 'random selection'.

This may be ameliorated to some extent by a proposed new scale for converting grades into points, which will utilise margins ranging from 8 to 15 points in a progressive manner so as to reward higher performing students.

Overall, I would award the proposals 29 out of 100, which is a fail on whichever system you subscribe to.

*James McDermott is a lecturer in the School of Law at University College Dublin

Irish Independent

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