Wednesday 21 March 2018

F for fail -- the Leaving Cert no longer makes the grade

William Hehir favours the International Baccalaureate
William Hehir favours the International Baccalaureate

Leading figures in education are calling for a thorough overhaul of the Leaving Cert and the points system, as third-level colleges and employers complain of low standards.

A growing consensus is emerging among leading figures in education that the exam and the points system, which it supports, should be revamped.

The Minister for Education Mary Coughlan has pinned her hopes of raising standards on the plan to introduce bonus points for higher level maths. But more experienced hands working in education believe our present Leaving Cert model is broken.

Michael Moriarty, chief executive of Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA), says the exam is a "blight'' on education.

Mr Moriarty, whose association oversees one-third of Irish second-level schools, says: "This is an exam that is only suitable for the 'Jimmy Magee memory-man'. You do well if you can simply memorise facts, but it does not assess other types of intelligence.''

"I know of many bright people who did not do well in it, and in some cases it created a stigma for life. They might be deemed failures, based on a narrow test that might last only three hours.

"The Leaving Cert is deeply ingrained and people are reluctant to change. You could say it is efficient, but so was the guillotine.''

Michael Moriarty was echoing some of the sentiments of Professor Tom Collins, the newly-appointed interim President of NUI Maynooth.

He recently called for radical reform of the points system and made a thinly-veiled attack on the Leaving Cert exam itself.

As chairman of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment his views carry substantial weight.

Prof Collins highlighted shortcomings and problems in second-level level education in Ireland.

These include:

  • The way in which about a quarter of all students become disengaged and disenchanted as early as their second year.
  • The reluctance of teachers -- and also of their students -- to experiment and use innovative techniques in exam years.
  • The increasing emphasis on "teacher talk" and "teaching to the test'' as students come closer to the exams.
  • Growing stress levels amongst Leaving Cert students.

Prof Collins argues that many of these problems are caused by the fact that second-level schooling is bookended by the high-stakes Leaving Certificate exam.

Prof Collins says: "There is a palpable concern in higher education regarding the capabilities and dispositions of students entering it straight from second-level level.''

According to Professor Collins, the manner in which the points system rewards rote learning and memorisation, while discouraging exploration and critical thinking, means that even high-achieving second-level students can struggle at third-level.

The present focus, according to the professor, is on getting students into third-level rather than on their capacity to handle it when they are there.

Arthur Godsil, principal of St Andrew's College in Dublin, believes the stultifying nature of the exam means college lecturers spend most of the first year in college trying to "de-programme" students, who are used to being spoon-fed with facts.

"The Leaving Cert is a very antiquated form of assessment,'' says the St Andrew's principal. "It does nothing to find students' aptitudes or to reward creative thinking.''

Prof Collins believes entry to third-level should now be decoupled from the Leaving Cert.

The NUI Maynooth interim president says colleges should simply set a number of qualifying criteria. And places should then be allocated by lottery.

The professor believes other methods could also be used in order to choose candidates

These could include the greater use of portfolios, which are currently required for subjects such as art and design, and could be extended to other third-level subjects.

Portfolio work would allow students to show specific aptitudes that cannot always be assessed in terminal exams.

Some of the other options that should be considered by third-level institutions, according to Prof Collins, are:

  • The use of standardised tests for entry.
  • A greater focus on mature students.

Irish Independent

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