In April 2020 Leo Varadkar insisted that the Leaving Certificate would go beyond “hook or crook”. It was not at all.
In early 2021, Education Minister Norma Foley said she had a “firm intention” to go ahead with traditional exams. He also reversed his position.
In both cases there was a crucial moment that convinced the government to change behavior: the intervention of the students.
Therefore, the announcement on Tuesday by the Irish Second Level Students’ Unions (ISSU) that state exams “may not proceed as planned” in 2022 is highly significant.
In the past, talk of “students’ voices” was mostly indicative and student representatives did not carry much weight.
This has changed dramatically due to the highly organized ISSU and the substantial power of social media.
Students, National Association of Principals and Deputy Principal and opposition parties are now united to proceed the examination as per the plan.
A survey of an estimated 30,000 students to be published by ISSU next week is likely to add to the pressure for change.
Teachers’ unions, education department officials and some government ministers, meanwhile, want the exams to go ahead as planned, arguing that the adjustments made will ensure fairness for students.
However, resisting exams is a bit easy: the more difficult question is, what are the alternatives?
The option of revisiting last year’s system of giving students a choice between a written test and a teacher-assessment grade seems daunting, if not impossible.
This is because thousands of Leaving Certificate students of this year who had skipped the transition year did not appear for the Junior Cycle exam.
These results were important to the standardization process that helped ensure fairness and consistency in results in recent years.
Any attempt by an algorithm to estimate the outcomes of these students based on a school’s historical performance would likely lead to accusations of “school profiling” and would eventually be mired in controversy.
This, realistically, leaves policy-makers with only two broad options:
Option One: Additional Choices in the Examination Papers
Under the current schemes, students appearing for the 2022 state exams will have more choices on their exam papers keeping in mind the impact of the pandemic on education in the last two years.
The existing schemes provide two sets of Leaving Certificate exams during the summer to cater to those who are sick with COVID-19 or are in isolation.
The adjustments planned for examinations in some papers are quite minor, so further changes can be taken into account to account for the additional disruptions.
Marking schemes can also be adjusted in some cases, like giving more weightage to project work etc.
Significantly, students and principals have not specifically called for a return to last year’s “hybrid option” of a choice between recognized grades and examinations. In theory, a move like this could be enough to get them on board.
It will also save teachers from assessing their own students, which is strongly opposed by unions.
The fact that the summer written exam is almost ready now and is likely to be printed soon, means that the clock is ticking fast. For now, this seems like the most likely option.
Option Two: Teacher-Assessment Grades – Without Standardization
While it would be difficult, if not impossible, to standardize teacher-assessed grades because of the absence of junior cycle results, there is another option: to abandon standardization altogether.
This is what happened last year in the UK after an uproar over the extent to which students were downgraded using an algorithm.
Teachers in the UK set grades using mock exams, course work, essays and in-class tests without resorting to any standardization.
Exam boards provided teachers with optional assessment questions for students, to help schools decide which grades to award.
The downside is that it will almost certainly send grades rising to a higher level than they were last year.
Last year, for example, some of the students with the highest marks, unbelievably, did not gain access to their first choice and were rejected at random selection.
The absence of standardized assessments will also lead to unfairness in the allocation of increased grades to individual schools, some of which will be more liberal than others.
Such a move would also spark opposition from teacher unions, who argue they should not assess students for the purpose of state exams – although they have agreed to do so over the past two years. All of these downsides mean, for now, it’s less likely as an option.