Sunday 23 November 2014

The CAO system must change, but reform must be careful

Philip Nolan

Published 11/08/2014 | 02:30

Leaving Certificate students taking the English paper last year
Leaving Certificate students taking the English paper last year
Philip Nolan

THIS time each year, as over 50,000 students receive their Leaving Certificate results, we hear renewed and impassioned pleas for urgent and radical reform of the points system.

The call for reform is more than justified, but this annual debate is problematic.

This is a time when we should be congratulating and celebrating the successes of those who have achieved their goals, while supporting and counselling those who are disappointed, remembering that there are many routes to success, and many forms of talent.

Students within the current system, with all its flaws, have learned much and developed greatly in the course of their second-level education.

Worse, the annual criticism of the Leaving Certificate examination and the points system rarely advances realistic plans for improvement or change. While many call for the system to be scrapped or replaced, few propose alternatives that withstand reasonable scrutiny.

Let me reiterate that I and many of my colleagues believe that our examinations and our points system need major change.

This change will, over the course of years, affect the learning and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

A poorly conceived or badly executed reform could do much more harm than good.

What is required is a careful and considered programme of work to improve the Leaving Certificate examination and change the way we select students for higher education courses.

What is the problem?

It is generally accepted that we rely too much on terminal written examinations. The questions we set in those examinations can be too predictable, encouraging students to learn answers and techniques by rote. The examinations are marked in a standard manner, and these marks are converted into a relatively large number of distinct grade bands (A1, A2, B1, B2 and so on, 14 different grades in all).

The higher education institutions reward each marginal improvement in grade with five extra points in the points system. In an understandable attempt to show students the variety of courses available, the universities and institutes of technology have created a bewildering array of over 1,400 separate entry routes - each with its own separate points score - creating a sort of market where higher points are associated with greater prestige.

Where five or 10 points can be the difference between getting the course you want and not, every mark matters.

Faced with this, it is entirely reasonable for students to focus on what is required to get the marks and to learn first the facts and approaches outlined in the published marking schemes.

We can see how this promotes rote learning.

Each component of the system - the assessment, the marking, the grading, the calculation of points scores and the proliferation of entry routes - contributes to the problem. The solution lies not in radical change in one part of the system, but in careful and co-ordinated reform of all parts of the process.

The required process of reform is under way.

The universities have agreed to a major reduction in the number of separate entry routes to their courses, so that students would only have to choose between broad areas of study on their CAO form (arts, science, engineering, business and so on).

It is proposed to reduce the number of grades awarded in the Leaving Certificate, lessening the pressure on students to gain a few extra marks to improve their grade and points score.

The State Examinations Commission is monitoring closely any inappropriate predictability in the Leaving Certificate and there is a sense amongst those attempting the examination in recent years that the questions are less predictable, requiring creativity, flexibility and understanding in order to properly answer them.

The universities are now examining a range of further measures which might improve the points system. A change to broader grade bands in the Leaving Certificate is an opportunity to create a new common points scale, and careful design of this scale could further relieve the pressure on students. We will also try to incentivise students to take subjects at higher level and to encourage them to engage with more challenging subjects.

The success of bonus points for higher-level mathematics is an example of how the points system can be used to positively influence student choice.

The fact that we are working to improve the current system does not mean that more radical alternatives are off the table. However, this is an area where we must proceed with the utmost care and caution.

It is tempting to propose that we move away from the points system and replace it with 'something else'. If we were to do so, we would have to be sure that the alternative is a valid and fair way of selecting students.

There is a real danger that new and different admissions systems could create a whole new set of pressures on students.

Above all, at this time of year, let us respect the achievements of students within the current system, acknowledge that it could be significantly improved, and work carefully and calmly in the best interests of succeeding generations of students to bring about the required change and reform.


Professor Philip Nolan is President of the National University of Ireland Maynooth and Chair of the Irish Universities Association Task Group on Reform of University Selection and Entry

Irish Independent

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