Leaving Cert H1 grades up almost three-fold between 2019-2021

Education Minister Norma Foley

Katherine Donnelly

The number of top grades awarded in last year’s Leaving Cert was almost three times higher than in 2019, according to new figures from the State Examinations Commission.

There were 41,704 H1s – 90pc or above on a higher level paper – compared with 15,332 in 2019, the last time students sat a traditional Leaving Cert.

Overall, 10pc of Leaving Cert grades in 2021 were H1s, up from 4pc in 2019 and 7pc in 2020, when 27,084 were awarded.

Grade inflation in 2020 and 2021 is associated with the calculated/accredited grades, based on teachers’ estimated marks, used in those years because of the pandemic.

The SEC has released the figures as talks continue on the final shape of Leaving Cert 2022, with calls from students and parents for an accredited grades option.

They say a hybrid offering of accredited grades and exams, as happened in 2021, is needed to compensate for the Covid-related disruption experienced by students.

Principals are also seeking more choice for students, including an accredited-grades style model , if necessary.

But Education Minister Norma Foley, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) and teacher unions want to return to an exams-only Leaving Cert this year.

Ms Foley is now involved in a series of bilateral discussions with education stakeholders in a bid to tease out a solution.

The possibility of more choice on written papers and other exam components, such as practicals, is on the table in the discussions. Some adjustments to the 2022 papers were announced last year, but further modifications are now being explored.

The grade inflation associated with the calculated/accredited-grades is among the reasons why the ministers and other authorities want a return to a normal Leaving Cert.

For the first time ever, in 2020 and 2021 teachers were required to predict grades for their students and they were generous.  Even when teachers’ estimated marks were moderated  through the national standardisation process, the grade inflation remained significant.

This year’s candidates are worried that a return to an exams-only Leaving Cert and a traditional distribution of grades, will put them at a disadvantage in the race for a college place if they are up against the high-scoring applicants from 2020 and 2021

The higher grades of the past two years led to a huge increase in the minimum CAO points necessary for entry to college courses, hitting unsustainable levels.

Last year the number of Leaving Cert students with the maximum 625 points rocketed to 1,342, more than double the 2020 figure and a six-fold increase on 2019.

Even where students achieved the maximum 625 points last there was no guarantee of a place on preferred course.

In 2020 the June exams were cancelled because of Covid and were replaced by calculated grades. In 2021, students had the choice of exams or accredited grades or both. Where students had both an accredited grade and an exam result in a subject they were awarded the better of the two, and generally the grade based on a teacher’s mark was higher than the grade awarded in the exam.

Meanwhile, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, current chair of the CAO, Deputy President and Registrar of NUI Galway, said a return to a hybrid Leaving Cert would not be fair.

He said the grade inflation of recent years was linked to the predicted grades system.

Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week , Prof Ó Dochartaigh said, with a hybrid model some students were getting a mark based on their exam performance and others were based on teachers’ estimates and those were “apples and oranges”.

“When it comes to that admission to the universities, we're being asked to pretend that everything that's in front of us is an apple and it isn't and I think that's where the unfairness creeps in,“ he said.

Sinn Fein is bringing forward a motion to the Dáil on Tuesday seeking a choice for students between grades based on teachers estimated marks and written exams in this year’s Leaving Cert.