Jess Casey: The key issues for the 2021 State exams

For the sake of students and teachers, decisions need to be made soon on this year's State exams
Jess Casey: The key issues for the 2021 State exams

Leaving Cert students have so far lost the equivalent of a term of in-school learning due to school closures, a quarter of their senior cycle education.

Decisions need to be made soon about the 2021 State exams, but they won’t be easy. Outside of a pandemic, the exams are a well-oiled machine. 

Every change or decision has a knock-on effect. Here are some of the key issues.

Practicals, project work, and orals: 

The cancellation of orals and practicals was the first major change announced to the 2020 exams, last March. 

Students were also given more time to complete their project work. But these components carry significant weight for a student's final grade, so both students and their teachers will be hesitant to see them dispensed with. 

It's not as simple as just changing the scheduling because examiners, who are usually teachers, will have to be available. 

A date for these assessments has yet to be set, but usually, they take place from March into the beginning of April.

Loss of class time: 

Leaving Cert students have so far lost the equivalent of a term of in-school learning due to school closures, a quarter of their senior cycle education. 

This is unfair even for students with the best resources but disadvantaged students are disproportionately affected. 

But with the virus at its current rate, it’s hard to see any form of a return to the classroom until the daily cases drop. 

Plans to send students in for three days a week also hit a brick wall at the beginning of the month. It’s also important to remember that not every student will want to go back to in-person learning yet either. 

A survey by the Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) this week recorded high levels of anxiety about going back into a classroom among the students who took part. 

Offering students even more choice on their exam papers may go some way towards addressing lost class time, but this needs to be communicated quickly to students and teachers to allow them to make the most of the months ahead.

The Junior Cert 2020 revolution: 

Called off in April 2020, it was initially to be replaced with classroom-based assessments in September. 

From a wellbeing point of view, many principals were very unhappy with this, and schools began to tell students they’d be marked on their work up until the end of the term, and to go enjoy their summers as best they could. 

Eventually, all schools were advised to follow suit. 

Something similar this year would help to free up capacity, both for schools and logistically. 

It might help if the announcement happened earlier to allow schools more time to plan.

Public health: 

One of the fundamental issues with Leaving Cert 2020 was relying on the hope that public health closer to the time would say it was safe to hold the exams. 

A survey by the Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) this week recorded high levels of anxiety about going back into a classroom among the students who took part. Picture: Larry Cummins

A survey by the Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU) this week recorded high levels of anxiety about going back into a classroom among the students who took part. Picture: Larry Cummins

This meant no decisive action was taken until the last minute. It meant weeks of anxiety for students, to be told their exams would be held later in the summer, to eventually the cancellation. 

To be fair, it was all our first time going through a pandemic, and a lot of us thought we’d be out of the worst of it by summer. 

At the beginning of May, the SEC presented then education minister Joe McHugh with the logistical problems involved in holding the exams for thousands of students in a manner that complied with the public health advice at the time. 

It just wasn’t feasible; Bear in mind this was long before schools reopened, and even before masks became mandatory. 

Exams would have run for over a month, and students wouldn’t have been able to use public transport to get to exam halls. 

But the big difference here is that this was before schools reopened. Now that they've closed again, where does that put us? 

On May 8, when the exams were cancelled, the seven-day average of cases was 244. It’s currently at 2,883. 

It'll also be necessary to have multiple different contingency plans in place – for example, what happens if a student or their class has to isolate? 

Calculated grades: 

By and large, teachers did not like calculated grades. A lot of students really didn’t either.

The Government will also be keen to avoid the process again. 

Overall, calculated grades led to grade inflation, and a number of flaws in the algorithm were later discovered, meaning students received almost 15,000 incorrect grades. Quite a few new college places had to be created as a result. 

Separately, a number of legal actions are still currently before the High Court. Separately again, an independent review into the process has yet to begin. 

The ISSU is advocating for students to be given the option – either calculated grades or written exams. 

But that raises the question of when the exam should take place. Postponing them has a knock-on effect in terms of third-level enrolments and admissions. 

Students who eventually sat written exams when they were held last November have had to wait.

The class of 2020 and prior: 

Arrangements put in place for the class of 2020 had a negative impact on students presenting results from previous years. 

CAO course cut-offs soared due to grade inflation, meaning some missed out by a very slim margin. Any arrangements must keep this in mind.

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