More students opt for higher level papers in Irish, English and maths at Leaving Cert

More students are taking higher level Irish, English and maths at Leaving Cert level since the introduction of a new grading system in June 2017.

However, new research has also shown that this has led to an overall weakening of the grade profile in some higher level examinations.

The research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), shows students have adopted the newly introduced grading system without much difficulty. The revised system now has eight bands instead of the 14 which were in place previously.

The smaller number of grade bands was designed to ease pressure on students and to encourage more substantial engagement with each subject. The new scheme also awards points to candidates who achieve between 30% and 39% on a higher level paper in the Leaving Cert.

The ESRI research, commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assesment (NCCA) on behalf of the Transitions Reforms Group, shows a gradual increase in the numbers opting for higher level when it comes to exam time. The potential for bonus points, awarded to those who achieve more than 40% in higher level maths, is a significant motivating factor, according to the study.

In 2016, 28% of students took maths at higher level. This number increased to 30% in 2017. For Irish, it increased from 42% in 2016 to 46% in 2017.

However, the study also shows a relatively lower uptake of higher level subjects in small schools and DEIS schools.

The research also finds the larger numbers sitting examinations at higher level has resulted in a weakening of the overall grade profile. This is most notable in maths and Irish.

Students reported the gap between the points awarded for higher and ordinary level subjects was too wide and did not reflect accurately the effort and workload involved at ordinary level.

Students opting to study higher level subjects were motivated by the rewards of persevering with higher level courses, with maths being notably singled out for the bonus points awarded for those achieving over 40%.

However, the research shows that this created a difficulty for some students opting to study higher level who may not have the capacity to undertake that level.

Education Minister Joe McHugh said ESRI findings will contribute to changes when it comes to establishing new exam structures.

This research provides an 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, said that some students are still feeling pressure when it comes to choosing subject levels.

“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,” she said.

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