Results Orientated: Leaving Cert Students taking more Higher Level Subjects

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The Leaving Cert results process has gone through some major shifts in the past year – but how has this been sitting with students? According to research released last week by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) these changes have resulted in an increase in the number of students taking higher level subjects, although the gap between smaller schools or students from disadvantaged areas has widened even further.

Leaving Cert Reform: What does it mean for Students?

The change in the Leaving Certificate last year saw the grading move from 14-point grading scales at higher and ordinary level, to eight-point scales. The level of achievement was also highlighted with these amendments, so you’ll find yourself getting a ‘H1’ and ‘O1’, instead of ‘A1’, ‘A2’ at higher and ordinary level. The allocation of CAO points for higher education entry also changed. In particular, those achieving 30-39 per cent are now awarded points, meaning the Honours/Pass decision isn’t quite the same gamble it was before.

The reform of the Leaving Certificate grading scheme was designed to help to reduce the pressure on students at exam time. The goal was to enable anyone studying to have a more rounded learning experience in senior cycle. The new scheme also awards points to candidates who receive a mark of 30-39 % on a higher-level paper in the Leaving Certificate, equivalent to the new H7 grade, and is designed to encourage the take-up of higher-level subjects.

Research Results

The research, which was released last week, shows that overall, more students are taking higher-level subjects, especially the dreaded Irish, English and Mathematics, as a result of the new grading system. However, the results also indicated that this has led to a weakening of the overall grade profile for higher level examinations – it won’t be necessarily easier to get into your first choice on that CAO. This is most notable in the cases of Mathematics and Irish, where the increase in the number of students taking these subjects at higher level has been accompanied by an increase in the number of students attaining lower grades. The number of students sitting higher level Mathematics rose from 28% in 2016 to 30% in 2017, while the numbers sitting higher level Irish rose from 42% in 2016 to 46% in 2017.

Notably, however, Schools in the DEIS programme didn’t record the same increases in higher-level take up, widening the gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools in term of the proportion of students taking higher-level courses, while small schools faced constraints around class sizes and their ability to offer subjects at different levels to their students

Government Response

Commenting on the publication of the research, Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh T.D. said: “I welcome the publication of this research by the ESRI and the NCCA into the revised Leaving Certificate grading system. This research provides a valuable insight into the early impacts of these changes and will help shape future policy on these important issues. We are still at an early stage of the reforms and we will need to continue to assess their impacts on students.”

Selina McCoy, Associate Research Professor at the ESRI commented: “The research points to challenges for students in making subject level decisions – with the incentives such that they feel pressure to stay with higher level, even though they may feel ill-equipped. As a consequence, time on other subjects is displaced and additional stress is created for students.”

Not Enough

No matter how the results are interpreted, the debate remains active that a much larger reform is required when it comes it the Leaving Cert. This once-off exam only rewards a certain type of intelligence along with those with the ability to regurgitate chunks of information. When it comes to colleges and universities considering applicants, would continual assessments be a fairer reflection of a student’s ability, or, perhaps, a model based on personal achievement and aptitude across a number of fields? No matter what the viable alternative, the present system is most unfair on students without the family supports or fiscal resources for grinds and after-school study. It’s clear when examining these results, that under this iteration of our state exam, they will continue to be left behind.

To read the report in full check out this link.


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