The CAT SAT on the MAT: Predicted grades and other thoughts on Leaving Certificate 2020: Part 1 1

I have made one deliberate assumption in all of this; that everyone wants what is the best for all students, not just those they know.

As with any problem solving effort, the proposed solution should not create more problems than it solves. While the postponement of the LC 2020 examinations has produced stress for students, ultimately it was the least worse decision at the time because it limits the amount of disruption to the system. That the exams will be held in August is not written in stone. But some have argued, in advance of the end-of-school, that the exams should just be cancelled now and replaced with “predicted grades”. It is interesting that in recent days some of the same people have changed tack and suggested that “predicted grades” could be awarded and if students aren’t happy with them, they can sit an exam instead. More about this logical inconsistency later.

“Predicted grades” or what the SEC might more appropriately call “estimated grades’ is possible. Anything is possible. But this doesn’t make it good or fair. The SEC from what I can tell has only done this once and in very unusual circumstances. I suspect the outcome was quite generous given the oddity of the situation. It is quite another thing to do this for an entire cohort. Not even the UK – the only country with a predicted grades system (that doesn’t even count for much in final offers) – does such a thing. Yes, they are trying something new this year. But they have an education system and curriculum implementation that ex ante facilitates that in way approximating fairness. Even then, they have said predicted grades would be unfair on students (Point 4).

Predicted grades would ultimately be guess-work grades. And I can’t help thinking that at least some students will end up feeling that they never earned the grade, nor the college place that comes from it. Particularly if a friend lost out on a college place as a result. But there are several reasons why, if possible, such an approach should be avoided. And if the LC is to be cancelled, there are other approaches that would be better than such retrospective estimates of student performance.

Leaving Certificate , LC Examinations and College entry

It’s no harm here, at least for the uninitiated, to define a few terms.

The LC is both a course of study and an exam. Issues concerning one do not necessarily apply or are relevant to the other. For example, the annual chant about rote-memorisation and its conflation with rote-learning in the classroom illustrates how some people often confuse teaching and learning issues with reasonable exam preparation. But then some people feel that because they went to school they know something about how schools and education works so maybe they have an excuse.

The exam is used (in part – see below) to determine CAO (Central Applications Office) points which determine who gets into particular third level courses.

In general the LC exam is not a pure test of ability but, all things held equal, the greater the cognitive ability of a student, the greater their potential to perform better in the exam. However, the LC exam also tests a student’s determination, persistence and effort. A student who works hard and consistently during the Leaving Certificate course can do, and usually does very well. A determined student can potentially do better than a student relying mostly on their ability. So the LC exam is a little like a Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). It ultimately resulted in the abolition of the Matriculation exams as a means of determining college entry.

Assuming a student is capable but also works hard, there are still multiple factors affecting a students performance. The most important are family background followed by teacher attitudes towards, beliefs about, and expectations of students. Generally, teachers expectations of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are lower than that of children from higher socio-economic backgrounds. This does not necessarily represent an intentional lowering of expectations; no one could accuse a teacher of deliberately dumbing down simply because a child came from a poor neighbourhood. Rather it is more likely due to teachers needing to respond what we call the entering characteristics of students and this is where the child’s family background comes into play. Polly Toynbee spells it out in all its sad, depressing reality here. A longitudinal study by Joan Freeman in the UK found, among other things, that working class gifted children had poorer outcomes in education than middle class average-ability children. You might ask why that last point is relevant. While there is a distinction between ‘high-achieving’ and the technical term ‘gifted’ generally it is such high-achieving students who are in the running for, and due to the scarcity of places on particular courses, competition for university places.

We might not have gotten as far as the UK but there is trouble potentially brewing in our social system that ultimately go back to the opportunities available and open to children. This and other related issues have been thrown into relief by the current crisis and we could do well to put ourselves to the task of fixing it once we get over the pandemic.

So simply put, you are less likely to go to college if you come from a lower socio-economic background than a middle class background simply because historical social and economic policies coupled with accident-of-birth means that a child is less likely to get the early education and role-modelling that the breeds the educational experience that lays the foundation for access to, and success at third level. Some research on this here.

The competition for college places is intense. A third level education, for most people, means more opportunities, higher life-time earnings, better life-time health, better retirement, longer life expectancy and better futures for their children in turn. It may be one reason that explains why there is SO much concern over this year’s exam compared to other years. Any threat to how students believed they would do needs to be met head on and perhaps some feel the the best way to do this is to cancel the exams and get a predicted grade in the belief this will give them their college place. This is not unreasonable. But predicted grades are not, and cannot be fair. Even if this was the only argument, we would need to think long and hard about going down this route. There are major issues with this approach that may create more problems nationally than they solve.

Universities do not decide who gets into college. This is decided by the allocation of a set number of places to which a number of CAO points are allocated as the tariff for entry. From year to year, the points required for entry will vary. This is in part because of the scarcity of places relative to demand in any given year. This explains it better than me.

The purpose of the LC exam is not solely the allocation of college places. Not everyone goes on to third level. Some students (approximately 30% of the cohort – approx 20,000) leave full-time education after the LC and need the qualification. They seem to have been largely forgotten about in the chant to cancel the LC exam and award predicted grades.

Mark n Scream

The marking schemes for LC exams – which determine how marks are awarded for each question on an exam paper – vary from year to year. So, for example, 30 marks might be awarded for an answer on the formation of waterfalls one year, but the next year, an identical answer for the same question may not get 30 marks. The underlying principle here, in the language of the SEC, is that examiners need to adjust the marking to take account of students’ response to the examination papers.

Imagine a year where everyone got zero in their exams based on the draft marking schemes. How likely is it that everyone that year did zero work and/or were relatively unable. Chances are the paper was too hard, not phrased correctly, marked too hard and so on. So what the SEC does is adjust the marking scheme. Where errors occur, they apply equally to everyone so no one is more disadvantaged than anyone else.

Imagine also if everyone was to get 625 points – demand would be skewed towards particular courses. However, places are limited so random selection would come into play. How then would we sort out who is best capable not just of the course but of sticking with it. And do so fairly. Re-standardising the marking to take account of students’ response to the papers means that students’ performance can be ranked and ultimately college places allocated fairly according to performance. This is done automatically and anonymously and without bias by the CAO, not by principals and teachers hmming and hawing over whether Johnny is in the middle of a H2 but he’s nice, and doesn’t he deserve it, so let’s give him the H1. This is the outcome of teachers being advocates for their students. It is fine and acceptable. But it is incompatible with the role of judge in whether Johnny gets, what for most, is a life-defining access to third level.

The approach to marking of the LC exams also means that it is harder to game the system. If grinds schools were SO successful and if the marking schemes never changed, it would only be a matter of time before people had the ‘formula’ for 625 points.  Of course all schools could also learn the ‘formula’ and then we wouldn’t be sure who was more likely than another to succeed at a particular college course. In the context of scarce college places, if we didn’t have the current system we would have to invent it.

Just a note not to take anything for granted – college places cost the government money. Taxpayers money – from all taxpayers regardless of their socio-economic status – pays for students to go to third level. The opportunity ought not to be wasted unnecessarily nor whimsically nor skewed in favour of the loudest and pushiest nor those who feel most entitled. Everyone should have an equal shot at a college place. While little can be done to overcome the element of accident-of-birth (in the short term anyway), the LC exam does make it possible for children from lower socio-economic background to compete on a level playing field on the day.

Each year, the results are adjusted and something resembling a bell curve emerges from the relative allocation of marks. The net effect is the distribution of CAO points and the distribution of college places relative to exam performance. All done in a fair, unbiased and anonymous way in what is a small and still insular everyone-knows-everyone society that is Ireland.

It would be hard to not to cross the street knowing the local principal or teacher was the reason Johnny didn’t get his med course for want of a H1 predicted grade. No amount of head nodding and agreement between school and State agencies could ameliorate that.

Part Two tomorrow.

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One thought on “The CAT SAT on the MAT: Predicted grades and other thoughts on Leaving Certificate 2020: Part 1

  • Bernie Murphy

    Good read … I hope the government think long and hard about this predicament. I feel they rushed the allocation of full marks for the orals and practical exams.. this act alone makes it an unfair playing field. As a teacher I’m not only saddened for this years leaving certs but also for next years as they to have had their course cut short. I hope that will be taken into account when preparing exam papers for next year ..
    Back to this year would it not be possible for a team of tech savvy people to re jig the exam papers to make them online compatible… that’s just some of my thoughts… but predicted grades will no cut the mustard..