The current Coronavirus epidemic has, if nothing else, revealed the immense fragility of the Irish state. While this truth can be seen in many areas, ranging from healthcare to employment, it is most obvious in the farcical responses to the crisis from the Department of Education.

Let us be clear, the lack of clarity in regards to this year’s Leaving Cert exams has gotten beyond a joke. Covid-19 was always going to discommode students, however, it has been the indecisiveness of the department in deciding anything to do with the current exam schedule that has caused the most problems.

Through the Department’s frequent contact with the public, they have revealed themselves to be incapable of being decisive. Almost all news in regards to the Leaving Cert up until now has been mired with words like ‘potentially’, ‘could’ and ‘may’. 

Even decisions such as outright cancellation or predictive grading, options that have been rejected by the department outright, still remain in the minds of the public as possibilities thanks to medical experts and teacher unions. The new July 29th date does nothing to alleviate this, as it’s seeming more and more likely that this crisis will not have abated by then.

Put bluntly, students have been left without a clue of what’s going on, something clearly reflected online. All it takes is a quick search on any social media site to find students tagging politicians practically begging for any information on what can be expected. These students also frequently cite the obvious issues such as lack of access to material and teachers, but also more fundamental problems such as lack of motivation. How can anyone be expected to spend hours each day studying for an exam that may not even happen?

At this point, many are asking why the Department simply refuses to do the obvious and opt for a predicted grade model. This question though has a clear answer:

The Leaving Cert. is simply unable to support such a measure.

As far as ineffective Irish processes go, it’s safe to say the Leaving Certificate is one of the worst. Straight away the general methods of assessment must be brought into serious question.

The Leaving Cert for a large part relies on squashing more than two years of learning into a single exam at the end of a student’s studies. Due to this structure, the majority of subjects have no official state assessments of a students ability other than the Leaving Cert exam. In other words, this system has a single point of failure. Predictive assessment is impossible because there is no official data to base predictions on.

Apologists will take issue with me here, stating that the Leaving Cert has become far more varied in terms of how students are assessed. Oral, Aural and Project work are now frequent features of many subjects, forcing students to avoid rote learning in favour of more comprehensive understanding.

But this rosy-eyed view of such (relatively) new forms of assessment are misguided. Any recently graduated students will know how rigid Orals are, to the point that if you memorize a few paragraphs of your chosen subject you’ll often fly through the exam. 

The Aurals and Project work are admittedly, in principle, a lot better. However, both of these methods are held back by the archaic infrastructure that they depend on. For some bizarre reason, aurals still rely on the use of CDs, the quality of which are poor if not outright incomprehensible. Meanwhile, project work can often be required to be submitted in handwritten booklets, such as for the ‘Research Project’ in History. How no one has informed the department of recent technological developments such as the ‘Personal Computer’ and the ‘mp3’ is beyond comprehension.

All this is besides the point though. The fundamental problem with the Leaving Cert is not that its methods of assessment are poorly executed, it’s that the framework of the exam is fundamentally wrong.

Take Higher Level English for example. The examination consists of two examination papers, labeled One and Two. Paper One is a paper largely based around composition. The first section of this paper revolves around a series of reading comprehensions, requiring the student to analyse and answer two questions on a provided text, as well as write an original creative piece. All this is to be completed in what amounts to a little under 90 minutes.

In Section Two, the student has to pick one of seven ‘compositions’ to write on, which could be required to take the form of a play, a short story, a debate, or even an opinion piece on an outlined topic. Again, the student has just short of 90 minutes.

With this outlined, I want to make one thing very clear: this entire first paper is pointless. 

Firstly, let us address the time constraints for the exam. Most ‘composition’ pieces written for public consumption take days to complete, a period of time far longer than 90 minutes. The idea that someone 18 years of age or younger should be expected to create any piece of creative writing in less than 90 minute is absolutely absurd.

What’s more, it should be noted that much of the creative process is far from an exact science. Sometimes, even the most experienced and successful writers end up writing pieces of very poor quality, which never end up seeing the light of day. I myself have scrapped more articles than I have published for this publication, for the simple reason that they were not up to snuff. 

With this understood, the very notion that a student should be judged on a single composition, composed in less than 90 minutes, on a topic they did not know in advance, is nothing short of outrageous. Such a form of assessment has no bearing on the outside world.

Paper 2 is no better. Again, the previous issues regarding time constraints and irregular quality of creative writing exist, so I will not repeat them. I will also defend (for the most part) the content of the exam. While many may find the idea of studying novels, film, and drama pretentious at best and pointless at worth, it is my belief that such study is of benefit for modern society.

What I will not defend is the way that the study of such material is examined. First off, students are not allowed to have access to the texts they are writing about during the exam. This puts pointless emphasis on the ability to recite obscure quotes accurately, and not on a student’s ability to know and understand the message, form, and structure of each examined text, thus jeopardizing the entire purpose of the second paper.

All these problems pale in comparison to what the English exam fails to examine students on. For example, Leaving Cert English lacks any form of continuous assessment. In other words, it fails to examine a student’s competency in writing, editing and designing a piece of work. These are the skills that matter most for writers in the modern world. Failing to examine them in any way is nothing short of atrocious, the failure to do so rendering the entire English examination worthless.

While I’ve spent the last number of paragraphs analysing the inadequacies of the English paper in depth, my criticisms extend to the entirety of the Leaving Cert. I could have just as easily spent those paragraphs going over how Physics does not examine a students ability to actually document an experiment, or how Politics and Society is just a glorified indoctrination problem. The point would be the same. The Leaving Cert is completely unfit for purpose.

With this established, let us return to our current Covid related problem. Unfortunately, I cannot see a good solution for the class of 2020. The archaic system leaves no room for maneuver, its entire weight leaning on a single, poorly made, point of failure. The Department of Education unwillingness to do away with the Leaving Cert has left today’s 6th Year students stranded. Chances are they will remain so for some time to come.

Posted by Daithí O'Duibhne

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