Tuesday 23 January 2018

New grading system leaves anxious students guessing

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Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The new Leaving Cert results system has left thousands of students facing a more anxious wait than usual for college offers on Monday.

The complete overhaul of the exam grades and CAO points scale means that college applicants cannot even make a reasonable guess about their chances of getting their preferred course.

There are differences in how grades were awarded as well as a new mechanism for translating them into CAO points, so it is like two distinct currencies.

It has emerged that, in the particular circumstances this year, there were discussions about bringing forward the release of CAO offers, but it was not deemed logistically possible.

As 58,500 students received results yesterday, many were struggling with the new grading/points currency and phones were hopping at the National Parents Council post primary exam helpline.

The biggest single issue being dealt with by guidance counsellors staffing the helpline was having exam papers rechecked, with students wondering about their chances of getting an upgrade.

It was inevitable that there would be a lot of questions on this issue - as grading bands now stretch across 10 percentage marks, for example 70-79pc.

Making it to the next highest grade brings a significant premium in points. Points are based on percentages, but the only way a candidate will know the actual marks they received will be by looking at the exam paper and then making an informed decision about whether it is worth appealing.

Read More: 'Not many 18-year-olds can say they got to open their results at Rose of Tralee'

Candidates can apply to view their exam papers at no cost, and with this year's changes it was anticipated that there would be surge in such activity in 2017.

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) clearly anticipated concerns. In June, it was careful to issue a reminder that 'rounding up' of marks was not permissible.

The SEC used the example of a score of 89.83pc (88 points in the new currency). It is tantalisingly close to 90pc, where it would become a higher grade, and worth 100 points - but unless in a recheck the examiner identifies a slip up in the original marking, the grade will not be inflated.

Meanwhile, the wider bands leave those at the lower end of the percentage range facing a big climb to get to the next grade.

So, while there may be a higher than usual level of requests to view scripts, it is unlikely that they will all translate into formal appeals for a remarking of the paper.

This year's changes have led to a big increase in candidates sitting papers at higher level, in almost all subjects.

This was one of the objectives of the reforms, and a key incentive for students was the awarding of 37 points for achieving between 30pc-39pc on a higher level paper, and its acceptance as an entry requirement for many college courses. Previously no points were awarded for a grade below 40pc and it was worthless for college entry.

Among those welcoming the increase in students attempting "honours" papers was the Institute of Physics (IOP), after a lift from 77pc to 83pc in a year in those aiming higher.

IOP chair Dr Mark Lang said that "taking the subject at the higher level opens more doors at third-level to explore options in science and engineering where there are good prospects for graduates".

Engineers Ireland also welcomed the continued growth in the number of students sitting exams in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) this year, when compared with 2016.

About 1,500, 1,200 and 500 additional students sat higher level papers in biology, maths and chemistry respectively - representing an increase of 6pc, 7pc and 8pc.

The number taking higher level maths has been particularly encouraging and has almost doubled to more than 16,000 since 2011.

Engineers Ireland registrar Damien Owens said "a solid grounding in STEM areas was vital to addressing global challenges".

Irish Independent

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