Study: No evidence of students gaming Leaving Cert system

By Niall Murray

There is no clear evidence of students gaming the college entry points system by picking so-called easier subjects for the Leaving Certificate, detailed research has found.

Instead, it suggests, the strongest academic performers are naturally the ones most likely to take the toughest subjects, at higher level, such as sciences, maths, Irish, and languages.

David Millar of the Educational Research Centre in Dublin firstly examined the comparative difficulty of subjects using a method called subject pairs analysis which resulted in an index of severity of grading.

As with some previous studies, students were more likely to get a lower grade in maths, chemistry, physics, and accounting than in other higher-level subjects they took in the Leaving Certificate in 2013. Higher-level French, English, German and biology also emerged as more difficult, but those found to be relatively easier at higher level were construction studies, design and communication graphics, home economics, art, geography, history, and business.

Irish was the only subject found to have changed status from previous similar comparisons from 2000 and 2001 Leaving Certificate results, as it is now very slightly comparatively easier than other subjects taken by students at higher level.

Mr Millar’s analysis shows 85% of students who take all but one of their seven Leaving Certificate subjects “dropped” to ordinary level in either Irish or maths. They are the two subjects with significantly lowest level of uptake at higher level, even after the growth in higher-level maths participation in recent years.

The research went on to compare subject choices and student performance, but Mr Millar found no clear evidence that students systematically select “easier” subjects to gain advantage in terms of CAO points linked to Leaving Certificate grades. Or even if they did, he said, selecting such subjects does not appear to confer any advantage.

The purpose of the research was to see if students were selecting ‘easier’ subjects to game the system. There’s no strong evidence, but it’s not necessarily ruled out,” he told the Irish Examiner.

His article on the study for the State Examinations Commission is just published in The Irish Journal of Education. It said any future research on the matter may require more complex statistical tools and a clear understanding of the context.

Mr Millar said more difficult subjects are more likely to be picked by students who are more likely to do well in the Leaving Certificate and gain higher CAO points anyway.

“The kind of student who picks the core subjects and three or four perceived easy subjects are not the ones getting 600 points,” he said. “But the student who picks physics, higher maths, or applied maths and some of the languages, they’re the ones getting the high points.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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