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Can a dual-currency solution deliver genuine Junior Cert reform


Damian Murchan

Damian Murchan

Damian Murchan

Currency matters. Ask Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Or German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. Education systems issue currency also, and students use this currency (for example, Leaving Certificate grades) in bidding for third level courses. Results of international assessments provide currency that is highly valued by policymakers and used to justify educational policy or initiate reform.

For decades, the currency at Junior/Intermediate Cert was grades, easily communicated and widely understood. Now, a second currency may be introduced.

One currency will include traditional grades from a Junior Cert exam in most subjects, combined with grades from one Assessment Task completed in school during third year. Both the exam and the task will be graded by the State Examinations Commission (SEC), which will provide a composite grade on a state certificate.

Under latest proposals, teachers will provide the second currency: descriptors (rather than numerical marks) from two school-based assessments - one conducted in second year, the other in third year. These will be graded by teachers.

Results from the SEC and school will be included separately on a Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement issued by the school. One system, two currencies and the understanding that they will relate to different aspects of learning and will not be aggregated into one consolidated grade per subject.

There is hope that the latest proposals can restart the stalled reform of Junior Cycle. Ireland is one of many countries seeking to refocus what students should learn and how they learn.

Education should promote students' acquisition of complex 21st-century competencies relevant to real-life contexts. These include: the capacity to think creatively, flexibly and critically; to identify, interpret and solve problems; to relate and communicate effectively; and to use technology seamlessly in learning.

A tall order for any certification system, especially one that does not draw directly on teachers' professional judgements about the work and progress of their own students.

Sending all student work out of classrooms to be assessed by somebody else, especially at the mid-point of secondary schooling, is not well supported by research internationally. This explains the efforts to incorporate some school-based components, assessed by teachers, into Junior Cycle certification.

In bridging the significant gap that has existed between the sides, the new proposal will include, on one report for students and parents, externally assessed state-certified results and results from school-based assessment. Work assessed by students' own teachers will not count for state certification purposes and will not be combined with the external exam results.

Two sets of results, two assessment currencies. Where dual currencies have existed in financial systems (Cuba, Panama), one is usually prime. Will this hold true in the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement? Might the school-based assessment ultimately be perceived as a low-value currency alongside SEC results? Teacher unions' insistence on state certification of the Junior Cert suggests that the SEC results may dominate, unless parents particularly value the school-based assessment results.

The involvement of teachers in the two structured school-based assessments offers some promise. Students can demonstrate their learning in varied ways in the natural setting of the school and classroom.

For teachers, involvement in meetings about standards and moderation can enable them to share assessment practices with colleagues through professional communities of practice proven to be powerful learning environments.

The proposal does not, however, free teachers from the strictures of "preparing" students for somebody else to assess, a freedom that could enhance their autonomy as reflective, thoughtful and creative professionals.

For society, introduction of some meaningful school-based assessment could keep alive the promise that the richness of the revised Junior Cycle curriculum might translate into a truly changed and enhanced student experience.

The debate about assessment reform in Junior Cycle has dragged on and the "solution" envisaged may be all that is possible at this time. It might work if students, parents, teachers and the wider public value the teacher-generated descriptors from the school-based assessments in the same way that the grades recorded on the largely exam-based state certificate will be valued. That's a big "if".

The way this reform has evolved, former minister Quinn may regret not having abolished the Junior Cert exam and certification altogether. From where we have arrived now, that may be the best solution of all.

* Dr Damian Murchan is assistant professor and director of postgraduate teaching and learning in the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin

Irish Independent