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Stress test: the perils of all-or-nothing exams

With preparations for the 2018 Junior and ­Leaving Cert exams set to hit fever-pitch, our education editor asks if we are ­piling too much pressure on an already ­anxious generation of teenagers?


Exam pressure: Deputy principal at Colaiste Bride secondary school in Clondalkin, Louise Ronan. Photo: Damien Eagers

Exam pressure: Deputy principal at Colaiste Bride secondary school in Clondalkin, Louise Ronan. Photo: Damien Eagers

Third-year students Jennifer Anago (14), left, and Maia Kridichart (15) studying in Colaiste Bride secondary school, Clondalkin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Third-year students Jennifer Anago (14), left, and Maia Kridichart (15) studying in Colaiste Bride secondary school, Clondalkin. Photo: Damien Eagers


Exam pressure: Deputy principal at Colaiste Bride secondary school in Clondalkin, Louise Ronan. Photo: Damien Eagers

It's back to school on Monday after the watershed for State exam candidates that are the February midterm break. Some dams, in the form of human tears, may now start to burst.

Whatever amount of love may have been in the air this week, affection is not the word that many sixth and third year students will be feeling as they face back to the results of the 'mocks'. This is the point where stresses often start to show in exam households, and not only on the students, but on parents as well.

The 'mocks' have no official connection with the State exams, but they are used by schools as a practice run to help students familiarise themselves with exam conditions and to identify any weaknesses on which they may want to work.

At the time they sit the 'mocks,' students may not have covered the entire syllabus and teachers factor that into their judgments. The results may also help students to assess, or reassess, their expectations. But, they can become a lightning rod for added stress.


Third-year students Jennifer Anago (14), left, and Maia Kridichart (15) studying in Colaiste Bride secondary school, Clondalkin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Third-year students Jennifer Anago (14), left, and Maia Kridichart (15) studying in Colaiste Bride secondary school, Clondalkin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Third-year students Jennifer Anago (14), left, and Maia Kridichart (15) studying in Colaiste Bride secondary school, Clondalkin. Photo: Damien Eagers

When Mary Dorgan, a guidance counsellor at Dublin's Institute of Education, spoke to students recently, she was struck by how they worry about their parents' reaction to the results.

One student said to her: "I know my mock in chemistry won't be great, I know I haven't a section covered and I am at peace with that." But what she was concerned about was translating that back to her parents. "They worry about their parents' reaction; that their parents are going to be disappointed."

The guidance counsellor sees it as a time to sit down with the student and parents together for a conversation that will bring everyone on to the same page.

The same point finds an echo at Coláiste Bríde, a 900+ pupil girls' secondary school in Clondalkin, Dublin. Deputy principal Louise Ronan tells of a recent encounter with students who had received maths results: "One was sobbing, not because she had failed, but because she had to go home for another row with her parents, who were insisting on her staying in 'honours'."

Another school and another conversation with the parents being pencilled in.

Such responses are not the fault of parents, who pick up messages about the importance of higher level maths. The "honours" programme is not for, or needed by everyone, a fact recognised in the current Government target for uptake at Leaving Cert, which is 30pc of candidates.

The 'mocks' are only the end of the beginning. The vista facing candidates from this week is a treadmill of orals, practicals, submission of projects and revision for the main event - two to three weeks of written exams in June. Mary Dorgan notes that aspiring doctors have to fit the HPAT aptitude tests in a couple of weeks and she sees that as another contributor to the pressure. She says that students, even the best of them, struggle with finding balance, between all the subjects - typically seven - as well keeping space for other activities, such as sport, regarded as an essential antidote to pre-exam stresses.

The strains evident among students and parents are manifestations of a system that has evolved into a narrow funnel, where, after 13-14 years of school, outcomes are largely measured in a single set of terminal exams in June. And then, by how well the grades achieved translate into CAO points for college entry: the 'points race'.

It is well-documented in a study for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), which started in 2000 and tracked the education experiences of a cohort of 900 students, from the end of primary all the way to college, or not.

It revealed high-stress levels among sixth years based on fears that their "whole life depends on" their Leaving Cert outcomes. Students, particularly girls, viewed it as an "all-or-nothing" opportunity and worried that if they didn't reach their CAO points targets, it would damage their chances of having a good life. Half were doing grinds to bolster their chances.

Points race

Michael O'Leary, director of Dublin City University's Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (CARPE), says he has no evidence that Leaving Cert students in Ireland are any more stressed than their peers in the US or UK.

But, while refraining for making judgment on the Irish exam, he adds: "We don't follow the rule about making decisions based on a wide range of information.

"The key thing you will find, in terms of best practice around the world, is that what is really, really important is not making important decision on the back of one assessment." He says that applies to education in the same way as it does to a psychological or medical assessment.

O'Leary says assessment and measurement are full of errors. "I am not talking about mistakes in exam questions, but that people perform differently on different occasions. Take any exam - that is only one sample of possible questions."

The Leaving Cert is not supposed to be regarded solely as a mechanism for college entry, but that is how it is perceived. The lack of other career paths, such as apprenticeships, during the recession or, indeed a lack of promotion within schools, or understanding by students and parents, of options, such as post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses - meant there was no obvious alternative.

In some countries, such as The Netherlands, students have the option of following more vocational-type programmes in senior cycle. Elsewhere, grade averages across senior-cycle may come in to play for college entry. In the UK, students get a conditional offer before they do their A-Levels.

The 'points system' is credited with treating all students equally - although it undoubtedly works best for those with the money to buy advantage in the form of extra tuition and from backgrounds there is a strong focus on education.

Teachers too succumb to the pressures of the 'points race'. It has driven a style of teaching and learning with an extremely narrow focus, often based on past exam papers and the shoehorning into young minds as much "learned off" material as possible.

For Junior Cert - now being slowly restyled, and renamed the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA) - read mini Leaving Cert. The ESRI found that, as early as second year, pupils were "switching off" because of the sort of rote learning that they were expected to engage in, in preparation for State exams ahead. The backwash effect of the 'points race' resulted in the Junior Cert being treated as a dry run for the Leaving Cert. But, when students hit fifth year, they were unprepared for the step change.

It is more than a decade since the ESRI, started publishing its insights, pointing to the imperative for the system to better serve the needs of all students: high achievers - who often feel the most stress because they are seeking perfection and chasing the last point to the nth degree - and others, with plenty of talent, but with different learning styles.

The response from the education system has been slow and faltering, but there are some grounds for hope. Junior cycle changes are finally under way, but it has taken a generation. It is more than 40 years since more active learning methodologies and new forms of assessment were first mooted and about 20 years since the NCCA started its reform work in earnest.

A revised Leaving Cert grading system and CAO points scale, as well as more common entry routes to higher education, rather than "niche" courses that drive points up, have also emerged in the hope of cooling the 'points race'.

What has changed enormously is the environment in which school and families operate. Social media and its pressures were only emerging when the ESRI did its studies; Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat were all in the future. The financial crisis, with its devastating impact on some families, had not happened. Family break up is an issue for some and homelessness is a growing problem, causing huge disruption in the lives of some students. Coláiste Bríde principal Marie-Therese Kilmartin says that even before they address their studies, many pupils are dealing with issues in their lives causing anxiety. She sees the new well-being programme introduced at junior cycle this year as a positive in that regard.

There was a consensus that, while the Leaving Cert and 'points race' were the 'tails wagging the dog', any reforms - crucially, broadening forms of assessment beyond a single set of exams so as to capture student skills and achievements beyond an ability to memorise - should start at junior cycle.

For years, teachers had prevented this getting to the starting blocks, because it included the idea that they should assess their own students for a State certificate, which is not uncommon elsewhere.

In 2012, former education minister Ruairi Quinn decided to fire the trigger. Teacher opposition continued and it took five years to start rolling it out in every school, and a much watered-down version at that.

At Coláiste Bríde, staff say they are already seeing the beneficial effects. The first subject to undergo change was English and, as well as a shortened June exam, students do two school-based assessments: an oral presentation and a task that requires them to reflect on, and improve pieces of writing they have done in second and third year.

Junior cycle changes

Louise Ronan speaks about a colleague in another school where a decision on whether students pursue Leaving Cert English, at higher or ordinary level, is based on essay written at the start of fifth year. In previous years, some students would have been "in meltdown" over the essay, but, she says, this year "everyone got into 'honours' class because of the skills they had developed" in the new junior cycle English programme".

Her colleague, Mairéad Earley, a teacher of English and fifth year head, chimes in that with the new junior cycle task of drafting and redrafting of written work, over an 18-month period, "naturally going in to fifth year, they can write an essay".

Earley is enthusiastic about the junior cycle change and believes "they will transfer fabulously into senior cycle".

She adds that, in tandem with the multiple forms of assessment at junior cycle, the school is phasing out some in-house exams, which is creating more space for new forms of student learning.

Ursula Bracken, sixth year head, expresses concern that "all the fabulous stuff students will be doing at junior cycle" will come to nothing when "they hit fifth year and it's back into old system, until that changes. Is it going to change quickly enough?"

The path now somewhat smoothed, next Tuesday, the NCCA is taking the first public steps to introduce changes to the Leaving Cert to be unveiled at a conference in Dublin.

Barry Slattery, who is NCCA director of curriculum and assessment, says the conference will hear about research in eight countries, conducted on behalf of the NCCA, which will be explored with the help of speakers from The Netherlands and the international think-tank, the OECD.

Following that, the NCCA will work with 40 schools to gather views on the sort of changes needed. The outcome of that process will form the basis of further discussions.

By the early 2020s, students will have fully experienced the junior cycle changes. Whatever emerges from the new NCCA process, it is hard to imagine that they would have to wait for another generation for necessary reforms at Leaving Cert.

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