Jess Casey: Leaving Cert students left in the dark amid mountains of data

Jess Casey: Leaving Cert students left in the dark amid mountains of data

Details of how Leaving Cert details are being calculated are vague.

The suggestion is that this year's Leaving Cert results are delayed because they need to be able to stand up to scrutiny, but students are still in the dark about what "standardisation" entails. 

And now it would seem they could remain in the dark about the particulars of this process until after they receive their results.

At the time of going to print last night, the Department of Education had not responded to questions put to it by the Irish Examiner.

However, a parliamentary question released to Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire earlier this week confirmed the department intends to publish further details about the standardisation process following the issue of calculated grades to candidates.

Since the cancellation of this summer’s exams back in May, teachers’ input quickly became the focus of public commentary. We heard lots about unconscious bias, conflicts of interests in schools, fears of legal action, and the protections for teachers.

We heard about how schools were asked to destroy the documents supporting how they arrived at a grade, and just to keep the forms deemed necessary by the Department of Education. When published, the schools' guide to awarding calculated grades was scrutinised in detail. There was a lot of pressure put on teachers and principals to get their end of the data submitted on time.

Despite any misgivings, everyone bought into the process, with teachers, principals, and school management bodies recognising the exceptional circumstances that led us here. But while an almost 50-page guide was published for teachers and principals on how to award marks through their end of the calculated grades process, the specifics around the inner workings of the national standardisation process have been scant.

Two guides have been published about calculated grades by the Department of Education, one for students and one for schools. In the guide for students, the process is described as combining school-sourced data with historical examination data to determine a result. This national standardisation process will bring two data sets "into alignment" and ensure that grades reflect standards nationally. 

However, details on how the process will work are vague. According to the guide, data sets included in the process include marks data at both a national level for Leaving Cert exams for 2019 and previous years, and at a school level for the State exams in 2019. 

The process also includes marks data at a candidate level for both Leaving Cert and Junior Cert exams for previous years, and at a candidate level for the Junior Cert results of the 2020 Leaving Cert cohort.

The department later confirmed standardisation will be carried out by statisticians with expertise in educational assessment, with the assistance of "specially designed software". 

Minister for Education Norma Foley has met with these experts involved, about the "intricate processing of the data that is being undertaken". 

She also made reference to statisticians reviewing the outcomes of 450,000 individual grades, using “different demographic characteristics” which include both gender and socioeconomic status. This is to make sure that grades are as fair as possible, she said.

However, this is the first time the words “demographic characteristics” have been mentioned when it comes to the standardisation process. It's not clear how they will be applied.

They weren’t mentioned when concerns were raised over potential school profiling, or in parliamentary questions submitted to the minister. They weren't mentioned in a parliamentary question confirming that further details about the process are intended to be published following the issue of calculated grades to students. 

There is no suggestion of anything untoward, but where is the accountability or fairness in the system if students aren’t sure exactly how their grades are arrived at, or what has been done to verify them, until after they have received them?

It is valid to want to delay results so they stand up to rigorous scrutiny. In fact, it's a basic entitlement for students this year, who have been pulled from pillar to post since March. The least they deserve is some form of certainty that their results are robust, and can be demonstrated as such. 

But they need to know the specifics on how they were calculated before they receive them. 

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