Billy Ryle: The Department Must Do The Right Thing By Mentally Exhausted Students

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Billy Ryle gives no marks to the Department of Education in the calculated grades blunder reported yesterday…

The Leaving Cert calculated grades process has been a comedy of errors by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) and an emotional roller coaster for exam candidates.

The first mistake, in a self-inflicted sequence of own goals by DES, was the decision to allow the State Examinations Commission (SEC) – the exams’ authority – to wash its hands of the calculated grades process for fear of legal redress.

This body with all the experience in conducting exams was allowed to walk away from the process when its expertise was most needed.

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The second critical mistake was the inexplicable decision by DES to downgrade 17% of the candidates’ grades, which had already undergone a rigorous process of checks and balances in their schools.

A third crucial mistake was to delay the Leaving Cert results from 12th August until the 7th September so that they could be subjected to a process of national standardisation by a Canadian contractor.

The fourth mistake was the failure to learn from the exam results fiasco in Britain.

Just when they thought they had survived bloodied but unbowed, the 2020 Leaving Cert Class was thrown into further turmoil when DES announced on Thursday afternoon that two errors had occurred in the standardisation process.

Consequently, about 6,500 candidates may be entitled to higher grades in one or more subjects. No candidate will be downgraded in the recheck process that is now underway. When the revised grades are issued the CAO will determine which applicants are eligible for further college offers. Every effort will be made to accommodate them in the current academic year, though some may have to defer until 2021.

Two errors were discovered in the algorithm, or coding, used to implement the standardisation process.

The first error was in a line of code programmed by DES’ external contractor, Polymetrika International Inc. of Canada.

The error affected the way in which candidates’ Junior Cycle results were included in the standardisation process. DES found the second coding error while checking data related to the first error.

Junior Cycle results in Irish, English and Maths were included in the standardisation process, along with each student’s best two other subjects.

Instead, the two weakest subjects were included in error. This error has reduced some candidates calculated grades.

Polymetrika discovered the error and informed DES about it on Tuesday, 22nd September. but it took a further week before the information went public.

The second error was that the Junior Cycle subject Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) was included in the data when it should have been excluded.

The coding errors were corrected and as a further check, DES has contracted Educational Training Service (ETS), a USA company specialising in educational measurement, to review the algorithm.

Following that review, DES will contact all Leaving Cert candidates, to advise them of grade changes, if any.

DES has emerged from the calculated grades process with its reputation in tatters.

It has treated candidates as inanimate raw data rather than young people with dreams, feelings and emotions.

It still needs to address two glaring errors if it hopes to re-establish a reputation for fairness and integrity.

Firstly, candidates who presented Leaving Cert results from previous years were hugely disadvantaged by the dramatic increase in grades this year.

In the interest of fairness, all of these CAO applicants should be considered for college places on the basis of the last traditional Leaving Cert exam, which took place in 2019.

Secondly, a candidate’s right to appeal her/his grades must be restored. This year there is no facility to appeal the calculated grade awarded, only the paper trail leading to the grade awarded.

This is a major departure from long established practice in the state exams and is a major cause of distress for many candidates who are feeling badly let down by the system.

It’s due time for DES to do the right thing by mentally exhausted young people rather than engage in self-serving damage limitation.

• Billy Ryle is a Career Guidance Counsellor and Educational Commentator

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