Back in the late eighties I remember my second-year English teacher (who now has rather a big job in Irish education) introducing us to the term “hyperbole”. No, Wordsworth did not actually see ten-thousand daffodils but the inclusion of this impressive number gives a sense of there being many, many daffodils. It’s a term I teach my own pupils today and one that sprang to mind when I read this Irish Times article and the many retweets it featured in. All of them seemed to accept that the Leaving Cert is “brutal but fair”. “Brutal” applied to the Leaving Cert is a nice example of hyperbole. It’s obviously inaccurate but a good rhetorical move that adds force to arguments a particular side of the Leaving Cert debate. The more of these tweets appeared I began to realise how many people don’t realise that describing the Leaving Cert as “brutal” is hyperbolic. Let’s not tell them about ISIS or the Khmer Rouge.
The Leaving Cert is hard and examinations can be stressful, but it is not brutal by any stretch of the imagination. It is simply the terminal examinations based on our well-rounded, knowledge-rich senior cycle curriculum. The papers themselves mostly require candidates to manipulate the material they have learned to answer not just short-order questions but longer ones that assess understanding. Many subjects now have a second component that can be prepared, and often even assessed, in advance.
The CAO system itself has not really changed since it was introduced in the 1980’s. There has been some tinkering in the form or bonus-points for Higher Level Maths (introduced, scrapped, re-introduced), changes to grade boundaries (originally 15% intervals, refined to gradations of 5%, now 10%) and the move from letters to numbers. But the central premise – grades are converted to points which then act as a currency and places in third-level are allocated in an online auction – remains the same. Each candidate has a single points score and cannot bid beyond this limit. The bids have been placed in advance of the examination, in the form of the CAO form. Candidates have to hope that the number of candidates with a higher score than theirs does not exceed the number of places on their desired course.
The points system has much to recommend it and was itself set up as a bulwark against corruption. To this end, it has been extremely effective. It doesn’t matter who you or your parents know, you are just a number and if you do not earn the required points the computer will just say “no”. But there are some aspects of the CAO that have corrupted the education system itself, from the inside. The first is the blunt nature of how the points are calculated. A H2 in Maths is worth 113 points. A H2 in Italian is worth 88 points. This is true even for a course such as TR670 (joint honours in modern languages in TCD). Apart from Maths, all subjects from geography to home economics to accounting to agricultural science to classics to English to physics earn the same number of points per grade. I won’t venture into the LCVP here. Some courses require specific subjects, almost always Maths and/or a science, but in general once you has your points you has your place. Common sense would tell us, and conversations with pupils bears this out, that choosing subjects for the Leaving Cert is often done with half an eye to which ones are “bankers” in terms of the overall points count. Capable students shy away from subjects they perceive as challenging for fear that the learning rewards will not be reflected in points earned. It is not unknown for candidates to take an extra subject, one in which they have no intellectual interest, purely in the expectation that it will bump up their score.
The single score also makes performance unfortunately and unhelpfully public. I believe in rigorous assessment and I believe in competition and especially in competitive entry to third level, but the points system can lead to candidates and others not seeing the wood for the trees. The answer to “how did you do?” or “how did your son/daughter do?” is a simple three digit number and an immediate scale on which candidates can be instantly and often erroneously compared with classmates, siblings and the neighbours’ children. Grades in individual subjects are lost in this discussion.
The single-score system is a major contributor to the aspect of the Leaving Cert that earns it the most oppoprium: the stress. Reforming the CAO so that bonus-points for Maths would only be applied for courses with a maths component (I’d allow for a generous definition here), and awarding bonus points for other subjects (such as languages) where those subjects are particularly relevant would go a long way to reducing this problem as there would no longer be a single answer. Instead the answer “how many points do you get?” would depend on the course in question. This is something that could be done easily and would still allow points to be counted and places allocated automatically and anonymously.
I don’t believe in stressing anyone out unnecessarily, as can be seen from the suggestion above, but I do find the stress-argument to be the weakest of all when it comes to Senior Cycle reform. Rates of mental illness, particulary anxiety-related disorders, are at worrying levels but we should be wary of self-report when it comes to the causes of these disorders. An anxious sixth-year will no doubt cite the Leaving Cert as an immediate cause of anxiety, but this does not mean that it causes or even exacerbates pathological anxiety. I have yet to see any convincing study that links assessment methods with poor mental-health outcomes. Rather, this rise in mental illness in adolescents and young adults seems to be ubiquitous in highly-developed societies and not correlated with Leaving Certificate style curricula or examinations.
It could be that rising levels of mental illness are happening despite the Leaving Cert and not because of it. The Leaving Cert is challenging, although certainly not brutal. Success requires work and dedication and the candidate must leave parents and teachers behind as they step into the exam hall, surrounded by their peers but supervised by a stranger. Waiting to be told to turn the paper over, waiting for the results and the offers to come out, knowing you have been judged anonymously to a standard set by people who have never met you: this is all stressful. It seems anachronistic in what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff describe as “the new culture of safetyism”. Yet, once they have come through it, students have benefited from the experience, including those who are disappointed in their individual outcome. The stress-argument for getting rid of the Leaving Cert exams also fails to take into account that any alternative will inevitably have its own stress-inducing elements.
Convincing alternatives to the Leaving Cert are thin on the ground. Continuous assessment is just what it says on the tin: a system where senior cycle students would never be more than a few weeks either side of a high-stakes assessment event. Allowing for more projects and coursework would magnify the advantages that those from homes with higher-educational capital already enjoy. A system involving personal statements and awarding credit for extra-curricular activities would also benefit those whose parents can supply or buy the necessary opportunities. It would school a generation in the ways of cynicism and instrumentalism where activities now undertaken because pupils enjoy them and/or see their inherent worth, would be reduced to mere boxes to be ticked.
It is a positive thing to see the content of our curriculum and our modes of assessment being seriously discussed in the media. The topic, and our young people, deserve this attention. We must, however, keep this to a real discussion rather than a drive for a cultural revolution where all that can be labelled “traditional” is marked for destruction and re-imagination. There is much that is good about our current senior cycle, as out-of-sync as it no doubt seems with the global trend towards what Zongyi Deng refers to as “the knowledge society that eschews knowledge in favour of generic competencies needed for the twenty-first century”. We have a sound knowledge-based curriculum and a rigorous, anonymised assessment system of which examinations are the main pillar. Let’s not lose either of these.