Will teachers be offered backhanders if they have to test pupils?
The issue of how students are assessed in the revamped Junior Cert is causing controversy. Kim Bielenberg reports
Plans by Ruairi Quinn to downgrade exams in the Junior Cycle are meeting with stiff resistance from teachers.
Under current proposals, 40pc of the marks in the revamped Junior Cert will be based on portfolio work.
In other words, from 2014 onwards, schools will have much more continuous assessment and less emphasis on exams. The portfolio may be stored on the Internet.
According to the plans set out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), this course work would be marked by the pupils' own teachers in second and third year.
But at their annual conference last week, members of the ASTI signalled that the path to reform will not be easy.
The union unanimously passed a motion opposing changes that would include assessment by teachers.
They fear that new pressures will be placed on teachers to give high grades; they say there is a danger of plagiarism; and some have even raised the spectre of bribery and corruption.
The most dramatic claim came from South Dublin Irish teacher Agnes Keane, who said "parents will be handing out the money to anyone who will be willing to take it at any time in the future.''
The suggestion seems to be that Ireland is too corrupt to introduce a system of continuous assessment.
Ms Keane, a teacher at Sancta Maria College, told the Irish Independent: "There is a huge risk that teachers would come under pressure to give pupils high grades.
"We live in a small society where people know each other. No teacher wants to be rung up and told 'you were the one who gave me low grades'.
"Parents might be inclined to give teachers money, or else it could be a present or a voucher. This would be aimed at getting their children a higher grade."
So why are curriculum planners so keen to ditch the current Junior Cert?
The education establishment was spooked by PISA international test scores that appeared to show a decline in numeracy and literacy of 15-year-olds relative to other countries.
The Government's Framework for the Junior Cycle cites research showing that a significant number of students -- particularly boys -- switch off in the second year of secondary school, and many never recover their interest.
According to the Framework, too much time in third year is spent rehearsing questions and answers to exam questions.
Philip Irwin, a History and CSPE teacher at High School in Dublin, has recently been appointed to the council of the curriculum body, the NCCA. He said he will oppose measure to introduce continuous assessment by teachers.
He said some of the Junior Cycle reforms were being driven by "blind panic".
Mr Irwin said: "We have a culture and tradition of external assessment in Ireland. At least we know with the Junior Cert exams that the results cannot be tainted. We need to avoid any kind of corruption in the education system."
Mr Irwin believes claims that there has been a drop in standards of literacy and numeracy are exaggerated.
"You have to look at other factors such as the increase in the number of students with special needs in mainstream schools, and the increase in the number of foreign students (who may have language difficulties)."
Many teachers may have reservations about continuous assessment, but one senior education official, who is involved in curriculum reform, dismissed the notion that changes cannot be implemented.
"The idea that we should not have continuous assessment because a small number of teachers or pupils might try to cheat the system is daft," said the official, who did not wish to be named.
He added: "There are many kids who are not motivated by the present exam system, and we will never make progress unless we change it."
Supporters of continuous assessment believe the reforms will bring us into line with many other countries including Australia and Canada.
In Britain, assessment based on course work has been widely used over the past two decades, but the system has been bedevilled by cheating.
The authorities have had to change their testing arrangements, because assignments carried out outside exams were found to be open to abuse.
English examiners now use a system known as "controlled assessment".
As well as the final exams, students are assessed on coursework carried out in the classroom under test conditions.
These tests are marked by teachers, but are subject to inspection by examiners.
There is already some coursework that is assessed for the Junior and Leaving Certs, and there are signs that the system has been abused.
In the Junior Cert science course, for example, where students submit reports on experiments, the chief examiner noted in 2010 that candidates in certain schools presented identical or very similar reports.
The examiner said this was a "cause of some concern".
In Leaving Cert history, students are already partly assessed on a research report carried out outside the exam.
One history teacher told the Irish Independent: "It is very hard to draw the line between what is the work of the student and the work of the teacher.
"Teachers are under intense pressure to get the highest grade possible. Students tend to get much higher marks in their coursework than in the exams.''