Comment: Certain cohort of our students sacrificed in the name of educational equality

Are we trying to send a message to our young people that hard work, commitment and sacrifice doesn’t pay, asks David Loughrey
Comment: Certain cohort of our students sacrificed in the name of educational equality

Minister for Education Norma Foley T.D congratulating students Fiona Isdell and Eloise Keogh from Dominican College, Griffith Avenue, Dublin on Leaving Cert Results day. Picture: Chris Bellew /Fennell Photography.

Was I wrong to expect that all students would have been treated fairly in the Leaving Cert Exam of 2020? Yes I was. 

There is a myth in the public domain that it is only private schools that have been impacted by the predictive grade system of 2020. The reality of the situation is that it has gravely impacted strong performing schools be they public or private.

We all agree the “choice” of which school you attend should never influence or determine the outcome of one’s grades.

The Oxford Dictionary defines equality as “the fact of being equal in rights, status and opportunities”. 

However, it seems that the Department of Education has a different interpretation of what equality means. 

As the fallout of calculated grades continues, it is clear and obvious that a certain cohort of students, mostly high achieving, have been sacrificed in the name of educational equality. 

David Loughrey is the Leaving Certificate English teacher at Bruce College, Cork
David Loughrey is the Leaving Certificate English teacher at Bruce College, Cork

Equality is for everyone. Increasing the grades of one group of students and decreasing those of another is called inequality.

In essence, the department changed the criteria for calculated grades unilaterally and without consultation. They stated that predictive grades were the fairest option for this year's class. 

Why then was the past performance of schools removed without any discussion whatsoever? 

Calculating Leaving Cert grades without formal exams was never going to be easy. However, Education Minister Norma Foley told us the delay in producing grades was in the interest of fairness. Were the results fair to all? The public backlash this past week would say otherwise.

Initially, the department guidelines stated to teachers that a school’s past performance would form part of standardisation. 

In simple terms, the department were trusting their teachers to produce a grade that would accurately reflect a student’s performance had they completed the exam in June. I and my colleagues followed those guidelines to the letter of the law. 

The results were aligned with the performance of students in Bruce College over the past three years.

However, after we had completed the process and submitted the grades, the department decided to cave to public and political clamour and remove school profiling. 

What was the point of producing a grade for students based on one form of criteria when that grade was redundant upon them getting rid of school profiling? 

The result of this is that a majority of our students had at least one grade or more altered from the calculated grade produced by their teachers.

Education Minister Norma Foley told us the delay in producing grades was in the interest of fairness. Were the results fair to all? Picture: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire
Education Minister Norma Foley told us the delay in producing grades was in the interest of fairness. Were the results fair to all? Picture: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

 In most of our subjects our student performance in the upper grades was considerably down compared to our profile in these subjects over the past three years. This compared most unfavourably to the national inflation in higher grades this year. 

By following the department’s original guidelines, our students actually got punished. Unfortunately, it would seem the algorithim trusted some teachers and didn’t trust others. So much for trusting our teachers to do things professionally.

Furthermore, it beggars belief that we couldn’t learn properly from the debacles in the UK. 

Perhaps that’s the problem at the moment. We are more interested in looking at what other countries are doing instead of being proactive in our own domain. It is obvious after the fiasco in the UK that the department overcompensated when it came to Leaving Cert results here.

As a teacher with almost 20 years experience in both the public and private sector, I am horrified and disappointed not only for our own students in Bruce College but for students everywhere who have worked extremely hard in the pursuit of their preferred college course and career. 

What message are we trying to send to our young people? That hard work, commitment and sacrifice doesn’t pay?

Downgrading a student’s performance and preventing them from entry into their chosen course just because they are surrounded by other high-achieving students is nothing short of a disgrace. In essence, the students in Bruce College have become victims of the school’s success in previous years. 

All students want is an honest reward for the work that they have put in.
All students want is an honest reward for the work that they have put in.

Furthermore, it angers me greatly when I hear our political leaders patronising these students by telling them to move on and forget about it. 

How insulting is that? Have they any insight or regard for the hard work these students have put in. 

The department has said that 80% of students have gotten one of their first three choices. 

However, when you work with students on a daily basis, you realise quickly that all they want is an honest reward for the efforts they put in.

As I mentioned, a considerable cohort of our students in Bruce College had their results downgraded. 

Yet, the statistics published by the department show there is a substantial increase in the level of higher grades attained by students nationwide. 

This makes no sense whatsoever. 

We all know that algorithims and models can have a built-in bias, implicit in the statistical data produced. However, how could it be so impactful on one cohort of students?

The facts point to a clear discrepancy in the way the grades were calculated for students in Bruce College and other schools. 

The reality is that our grades should have actually increased in more subjects in line with the overall rise in grades across the country. Instead of being graded on statistical likely outcome, the department has chosen to punish them because they are in an environment with many other high achieving and highly motivated students.

The lesson from this debacle is clear: algorithims should not be used to assign student grades. 

In an article by Meredith Broussard ‘When Algorithims Give Real Students Imaginary Grades’, she stated: “The pandemic makes it tempting to imagine that social institutions like schools can be replaced by technological and mathematical solutions. They can’t.” 

Algorithims can’t grade my English essays and they will never replace teachers.

We are not looking for any favours from the Department of Education. We are looking for fairness and equity for all students. 

This does not instil confidence in our public administration during this pandemic. We should not have teachers, students and parents questioning the validity and fairness of our examination system. This can never happen again. 

The next time we hear people chime for calculated grades, we need to resist their calls. 

The Leaving Cert will only ever be fair and students will only ever be properly rewarded in an exam hall.

- David Loughrey is the Leaving Certificate English teacher at Bruce College, Cork

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