Saturday 17 March 2018

In my opinion: Why the Leaving Cert is the fairest and the best

When it comes to assessing students, Reverend Charles Caleb Colton got it right when he observed that: "Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer."

But despite this drawback, it never occurred to me that sitting the Leaving Certificate should take its place alongside alcohol, illicit drugs and speeding on the list of dangers to the health of our nation's youth.

Yet this is the only logical conclusion that one can come to having read recent ESRI research which suggests that "thousands of sixth-year pupils are suffering high levels of stress and many lose sleep worrying about the exam and their chances of getting into college".

The development of the Leaving Certificate remains one of the outstanding educational achievements of this State, being an excellent method of measuring intellectual ability as well as a method of distributing college places in an equitable fashion.

The Leaving enjoys an outstanding international reputation and the unanimous respect of the hundreds of thousands of people who have sat it in the past. Of course, sitting the Leaving can be a stressful experience, but one would imagine that some element of pressure is inevitable in any exam situation.

Despite the constant carping about the Leaving, its critics seem unable to suggest a viable alternative. Aside from the significant additional costs of introducing continuous assessment, the ready availability of access to the internet makes cheating easier than ever, explaining why most colleges now subscribe to anti-plagiarism databases'.

Even software such as this will not detect assignments written with an unacceptable level of assistance provided from a teacher or parent. The great strength of the Leaving is that by insisting that the exams are taken in strictly supervised centres by students whose identity is not disclosed to their assessors, a candidate taking the exams is assured that the results they finally receive are those that their performance on the day merited.

The most frequently made criticism is that the Leaving Certificate disproportionately rewards those students who are able to memorise and regurgitate large chunks of a given course without ever really engaging with, or properly comprehending, the material.

If this really is the case, then why not make selected papers open-book exams, thereby forcing students to appreciate the prescribed texts rather than merely memorising them?

Luckily, the merits of the Leaving Certificate appear to be appreciated by Minister Mary Coughlan, who correctly observed that "the harsh reality is that over your lifetime, you will always have pressure", and that the current system was "the fairest way" of assessing students' abilities.

These views correspond with my own experience of teaching first-year law students at UCD, the majority of who arrive in Belfield within weeks of sitting their Leaving.

The students that I encounter each September are a carefree, well-adjusted bunch. To suggest that these young people are unable to handle the stress of exams is to underestimate them and denies them the opportunity to fulfil their potential. After all, without the application of appropriate pressure, a diamond might well remain merely a chunk of coal.

Irish Independent

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