STATE exams should be introduced as early as fifth year in a bid to take pressure off Leaving Certificate students, a principals' association has claimed.
President of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), Padraig Flanagan said urgent and meaningful reform is needed to improve the educational experience of students at this point.
Mr Flanagan referred to the "curricular limbo" due to the impasse in implementing proposed Junior Cert reforms.
Teacher unions are involved in a dispute over a key aspect of Junior Cert reform - replacing the traditional State exam with teachers assessing their own students.
Mr Flanagan said while it may be "naive" to think about Leaving Certificate reform while Junior Cert reform was "stuck in gear", it could happen in a very short time if the desire was there, especially on the part of Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan.
The principals' leader said the "cachet of high points" dominated the education landscape and left many young people feeling despondent and inadequate every August, when the Leaving Certificate results were released.
The pressures associated with the "points race" - where five points out of 600 can determine a place on a college course - have been documented in research revealing unduly high stress levels among sixth-year students.
"We must look at the ways we teach our young people at senior cycle as well as at junior cycle. Preparing students for third-level education and the labour market cannot be at the cost of their well-being," he said.
Speaking on the eve of the NAPD annual conference, which opens today, Mr Flanagan outlined proposals for reform of the Leaving Certificate and college entry system, to include the use of continuous assessment of students in the run-up to the Leaving Certificate.
He suggested that the results of fifth-year school exams could count for Leaving Certificate grades. However, it is the notion of such school-based assessments at junior cycle that has caused fury within the teacher unions.
The principals' leader also called for the extension of a bonus points system, which would reward students for grades in subjects relevant to particular college courses.
He suggested that third-level colleges could do more to recognise student talent and take the heat out of the points race, such as by greater use of scholarships to recognise achievement in the arts, science and for charitable work, as well as for sport.
The principals also support plans to reduce the number of individual courses on the CAO list by having broader entry routes and delaying specialisation until later.