The new system of “calculated grades” raises interesting and fundamental questions about how we assess student performance.
The Leaving Certificate examinations for 2020 have been cancelled and replaced with a protocol for assigning “calculated grades” under which teachers will report both a predicted percentage mark and a rank order for the students in their class.
Within a school, a “subject alignment group” comprising all teachers of Leaving Certificate classes in a given subject will seek to ensure consistency in how each individual teacher assigns marks.
School principals will provide oversight and may insist on “further review” of predicted marks if there is evidence that the grades awarded are inconsistent with a student’s past performance or that there is some other lack of objectivity in the process.
There are many obvious flaws in a process that places teachers in the roll of both coach and referee. Even if we accept the Department of Education’s claim that “[t]here is a strong body of research confirming the ability of teachers to make accurate professional judgements in relation to rank ordering students within their class groups and to assign estimated marks” this does nothing to address the conflicts of interest that would arise.
However, if we accept that (i) examinations cannot take place and (ii) that we require some assessment of student’s academic performance in order to allocate college places then it is hard to see how, at a high level, the process could be improved. There is simply no-one who is better placed to assess students than their teachers, even if it must be acknowledged that teacher-assigned grades will be disadvantageous for many students and completely unworkable for others.
All this notwithstanding, it is the final step in the process – misleadingly named “national standardisation”– in which I am most interested. In this final step, the marks awarded by teachers will be submitted to the Department of Education which will then adjust those marks to “bring them into line with the expected distribution for each school”. This distribution will be based on the performance of other students from the same school in previous years’ Leaving and Junior Certificate exams.
In effect, then, a student who is “middle-of the-pack” in one school will receive a grade that is higher or lower than that of a similarly-average student from another school and the difference in the grades they receive will be based solely on the schools they each attend.
Immediately, that will strike many as being distinctly unfair – not least because it is the students of the expensive, fee-charging, “elite” schools that will receive higher grades than students from schools that serve disadvantaged communities.
It may reasonably be argued that the cancellation of the exams presents an opportunity to ensure greater fairness through a standardisation process that maps all schools to the same grade distribution – regardless of a school’s past performance.
However, it is also reasonable to point out that when some schools outperform others it is not because their students are assessed according to some more forgiving standard. It is because their students are better-prepared. These students were not born better prepared and, in the final analysis, they only outperformed others because they put more time and effort into their education.
Of course, it is easier to put time and effort into preparing for exams when everyone in your class is focused on doing the same thing. It is easier to imagine yourself going to college when it is effectively assumed by everyone that you will do so. It is easier to learn when you and your fellow students all come from financially secure, low-stress environments with supportive and encouraging parents who value education.
If the students in some schools are better prepared, it is largely because it is easier for them to be so.
I suspect that the national standardisation will go ahead as recently announced and that differences in school performance will persist in the calculated grades awarded for 2020. This is not because I think that the government or Department are dedicated to preserving the socio-economic advantages of some. Rather it is because school-level past performance is genuinely the best widely-available proxy for likely academic performance among the class of 2020.
Yet I also suspect that educational inequality will be a topic of discussion in 2020 and beyond and I wonder if the radical, albeit enforced, departure from the traditional end-of-year exams might encourage a fundamental re-imagining of how we assess students and award places in third level.