I thank members for the invitation to engage with the committee on the 2020 leaving certificate calculated grades process and on preparations for the 2021 leaving certificate. I am assistant secretary at the Department of Education with responsibility for curriculum and assessment matters. Attending with me are Dr. Harold Hislop, chief inspector in the Department of Education; and Andrea Feeney, CEO-designate of the State Examinations Commission and previously director of the Department’s calculated grades executive office.
The Government decision of 8 May 2020 to postpone the leaving certificate examinations and to adopt a model of calculated grades was a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which prevented the State from running the conventional leaving certificate examinations this year. The Government decision was made following an assessment of public health advice, advice from the National Educational Psychological Service and other likely implications for holding the examinations from the previously rescheduled date of Wednesday, 29 July 2020. Critical to this decision also were the strongly expressed views of the advisory group for contingency planning for State examinations 2020, comprising all stakeholders, including students, teachers, school managers and others. This advisory group met frequently from April and it shared concerns that it was not possible to hold the conventional examinations safely.
It was decided that leaving certificate candidates would be provided with the option of receiving calculated grades and certification that would allow them access the Central Applications Office, CAO, system, higher and further education, and the world of work. Candidates would also retain the right to sit the conventional leaving certificate examination as soon as it was safe for the State examinations to be held. These written examinations will commence next Monday, 16 November, when approximately 2,800 candidates will sit 7,300 examinations in 600 schools and other settings.
The leaving certificate class of 2020 faced a unique set of circumstances and the decision to provide students with calculated grades was taken with the best interests of students at heart and in full consultation with the partners in education. The design of the calculated grades model was informed by advice from a technical working group, comprising experts drawn from the State Examinations Commission, the inspectorate of the then Department of Education and Skills, the Educational Research Centre and international external expertise.
At all times, the calculated grades system had concern for this year’s group of leaving certificate students who completed their second level education under the most unprecedented and difficult circumstances. Through the calculated grades process, the Department sought to ensure that the grades students received are fair and comparable representations of their levels of achievement. Every effort was made by the Department to provide calculated grades to as many students as possible, provided there was credible and satisfactory evidence from an appropriate source and on which an estimated percentage mark could be based. Calculated grades results were issued to more than 60,000 students on 7 September 2020, ensuring deadlines for the CAO, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and other jurisdictions’ college entry systems would be met as far as possible.
Very regrettably, a number of coding errors occurred in the calculated grades model. On 3 October, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announced that 6,100 leaving certificate students would later that day receive details of improved calculated grades following the correction of those errors. As part of the round 4 offers made by the CAO on 8 October, 485 of these students received a CAO offer on foot of their improved grades. Each of them was given the opportunity to take up his or her offer in the current academic year. The Minister also announced that she had asked for a comprehensive independent expert review of the design and implementation of the calculated grades process to take place when the process is complete. Some initial scoping of the review has taken place and legal advice is currently being sought, having regard to certain litigation in being.
On 21 August, the Minister announced a series of changes that will be made to the assessment arrangements for the 2021 State examinations. These changes are detailed in the assessment arrangements for junior cycle and leaving certificate examinations 2021 which forms part of the roadmap for the full return to school. The arrangements are designed to take account of the disrupted learning experienced by students during the 2019-20 school year and to factor in possible further loss of learning time in the 2020-21 school year as a contingency measure. As the loss of learning through school closures will have affected students’ engagement with their course of study in various ways, the adjustments put in place will play to students’ strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the examinations, while incorporating additional choice. Project briefs for relevant subjects will be issued earlier than usual and practical course work will be submitted earlier than normal.
The preference of the Department and all stakeholders would have been to hold the June examinations in 2020 for several reasons, not least of which was that students are familiar with the examination format and the format of associated practicals and tasks. That is why the Department and the Minister, Deputy Foley, are determined to run conventional examinations in 2021 and planning is progressing for the running of the 2021 leaving certificate examination.
My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions committee members may have.