In April 2020, Leo Varadkar insisted the Leaving Cert would go ahead “by hook or by crook”. It was not, of course.
In early 2021, Education Minister Norma Foley said she had “firm intentions” to continue with traditional exams. She, too, has reversed her position.
In both cases, there was a crucial moment that convinced the government to change course: the intervention of the students.
So the announcement on Tuesday by the Irish Second Level Students Unions (ISSU) that state exams “cannot go as planned” in 2022 is very significant.
In the past, talking about the “voice of the students” was mostly symbolic and the student representatives did not carry much weight.
This has changed dramatically thanks to a highly organized ISSU and the tremendous power of social media.
Students, the National Association of Directors and Deputy Directors and the opposition parties are now united to move the exams forward as planned.
A poll of around 30,000 students – to be released next week by ISSU – will likely increase the pressure for change.
Teacher unions, education ministry officials and some government ministers, meanwhile, want exams to go as planned and argue that the adjustments made will ensure fairness for students.
Voicing opposition to the exams, however, is the easy part: a more difficult question is what are the alternatives?
The option of re-running last year’s system of giving students the choice between written exams and teacher-assessed grades appears to be very difficult, if not impossible.
This is because thousands of graduating students this year who skipped the transition year did not take the junior cycle exams.
These results have been crucial to the standardization process which has helped to ensure fairness and consistency of results over the past few years.
Any attempt to estimate the results of these students by an algorithm, based on a school’s historical performance, would likely lead to accusations of “school profiling” and end up bogged down in controversy.
This realistically leaves policy makers with only two main options:
First option: additional choice in the exam papers
Under current plans, students taking the 2022 state exams will have more choices on their exam papers to account for the impact of the pandemic on education over the past two years.
Existing plans also provide for two rounds of graduation exams to be held over the summer to meet the needs of people sick with Covid-19 or in isolation.
The planned exam adjustments are quite modest in some articles, so other changes could be taken into account to account for the additional disruption.
Scoring schemes could also be adjusted in some cases, for example by giving more weight to project work etc.
Significantly, students and principals did not specifically call for a return to last year’s “hybrid option” of choosing between accredited grades and exams. In theory, therefore, such an approach could be enough to rally them.
It would also prevent teachers from having to assess their own students, which the unions are fiercely opposed to.
The fact that the summer written exams are in the works and likely to be printed soon means time is running out. For now, this seems the most likely option.
Option 2: grades assessed by the teacher – without standardization
If it would be difficult, if not impossible, to standardize the grades awarded by teachers due to the lack of results in the junior cycle, there is another option: to abandon standardization altogether.
This is what happened in the UK last year following an outcry over the downgrading of students using an algorithm.
In the UK, teachers determined grades using mock exams, coursework, essays and classroom tests without resorting to any standardization.
Examination boards have provided teachers with optional assessment questions for students to answer to help schools decide what marks to assign.
The downside is that it would almost certainly push the ratings up to even higher levels than last year.
Last year, for example, some students with the most points, incredibly, did not get access to their first choice and were rejected in a random selection.
The lack of standardized assessments would also lead to unfairness in the distribution of inflated marks among individual schools, with some being more generous than others.
Such a move would also draw opposition from teachers’ unions, who argue that they should not have to assess students for state exams – although they have agreed to do so within the past two years. . All of these drawbacks mean, for now, that this option is less likely.