Ireland's calculated grades: What happens when there is no school

Author: Clare O'Hare

Trinity College

In this three-part education blog series, we are looking at how various education systems responded to COVID-19 cancellation of terminal school exams. Read “Predicated Grades: A Predicted Fiasco?,” the first post of this series. 

Leaving Certificate grades were released on 7 September in Ireland. This is three weeks later than normal, but in a year where nothing has been normal, that is hardly a surprise. Ireland was one of the many countries that cancelled terminal school exams because of the pandemic. The original Irish Calculated Grades Scheme (“CGS”) for awarding grades was quite similar to the UK’s predicted grades approach. However, after the disaster that unfolded in the UK, the Irish government reassessed its process, ultimately deciding not to use each school’s results from previous years as part of the standardization process. This change was particularly important for DEIS (disadvantaged) schools, which feared their students would, as was the case in the UK, be disadvantaged by the system.

Policy makers recognized that this would result in some grade inflation but said this was needed in light of the exceptional circumstances of the year and to prioritize “fairness for the students of 2020.” This change may have reduced the likelihood of a legal challenge to the CGS methodology. In the UK, legal action was avoided when the standardization process was dropped and students ultimately received the higher of the teacher predicted and system predicted grades. In Norway, the Data Protection Authority issued a draft ruling that the IBO’s system for calculating grades in the absence of exams processed personal data in an unfair, inaccurate, and obscure manner and thus the grades awarded to Norwegian students could not stand. However, it has not eliminated all risk of challenge to the CGS. Even before the grades were released, a student successfully challenged the CGS in the Irish High court. Curiously though, the challenge was not against the CGS methodology but concerned student eligibility for assessment under the scheme.

In Burke v. Minister for Education [2020] IEHC 418, Elijah Burke, a student taught at home by his mother, challenged his exclusion from the CGS. To understand why the Department of Education excluded Mr. Burke from the CGS, it is important to note how the Leaving Certificate is usually graded and how the CGS operates. In a normal year, Leaving Certificate students are assigned an ID number and all exams are identified by ID number, no personally identifiable information is on the exam scripts. Once the exams are completed, these anonymous exam scripts are distributed to examiners across the country. Examiners thus have no idea whose papers they are grading, nor even what part of the country or school the papers come from. While the system has many flaws, the multiple layers of anonymity create some confidence that the grading of the system is relatively unbiased.

On the other hand, the CGS depends to a large degree on teachers giving estimated marks to their own students. Anonymity is clearly impossible. Instead, the “cornerstone of the Calculated Grades model is a reliance on the professional judgment of teachers…in arriving at a professional judgment in relation to each student’s expected performance.”

The lack of anonymity raises particularly acute difficulties where students are taught by a family member. The obvious conflict of interest means it is inappropriate for the parent-teacher to provide an estimated grade. If it were allowed, the “credibility and integrity of the process” would be in question. In Mr. Burke’s situation, the Department of Education added that he would be excluded from the CGS because there was no “satisfactory, credible evidence from an appropriate source on which to base the [grade] estimate.” Furthermore, in the CGS the individual teacher assessment is complemented with a school-wide alignment process and finally, subjected to some degree of national standardization and moderation. For home-schooled students, these latter two standardization measures are unlikely to be replicable.

Although the applicant argued that the CGS exclusion breached his constitutional right to be educated at home (the State disagreed with this contention), the judge considered it unnecessary to examine this legal argument. Because the CGS guidance on conflicts of interest distinguished between in-school students and out-of-school students, which in turn led to Mr. Burke’s exclusion from the scheme, the judge examined whether this distinction passed the “fundamental reason or common sense test.” Ultimately, Mr. Justice Meenan felt it did not. In an in-school conflict scenario, school principals and/or deputy principals were required to provide “additional oversight and approval of the estimated mark.” By contrast, the guidance for out-of-school conflicts did not provide any alternative route for student evaluation. The judge summarized the solution for in-school students as “making provision for the involvement of another non-conflicted teacher,” and rejected the department’s argument that to apply the same solution to out-of-school students would result in “individualised assessment,” within a necessarily imperfect generalized solution. The judge felt that there would be no material difference in the task asked of an independent teacher in either scenario, and held that there was “no rational basis for maintaining that the involvement of another teacher” conferred an advantage on a homeschooled student compared to a school-going student.

Finally, in the specific case at hand, the judge rejected the argument that there was no “satisfactory, credible evidence” for estimating the applicant’s grade. For out-of-school learners, the CGS required “a range of evidence as similar as possible to the evidence required for the in-school process.…All involved must ensure that no bias, unconscious or otherwise, influences the decisions made in relation to a student’s expected performance.” Mr. Burke’s mother is a qualified teacher who has worked as an examiner for the State Examination Commission, the body that sets and grades nationwide exams, including the Leaving Certificate. She submitted to the court that she had “a significant body of credible evidence available in order to facilitate the calculated grade,” including mock exams. Mr. Justice Meehan held that the credibility or otherwise of the evidence could only be decided once the evidence had been examined.

Ultimately, the judge ruled that the exclusion of homeschooled students who are taught by a parent was “arbitrary, unfair, unreasonable and contrary to law” and that a non-conflicted or independent teacher or teachers should be involved for out-of-school students. Presumably, it is at this stage that the credibility and satisfactoriness of evidence on which to estimate a grade can be assessed.

Impact of the decision?

Although there are only about ten students in the same situation as Mr. Burke, this decision could be relevant to students who attend regular schools but prepare for an additional subject out of school with the assistance of a family member. The most obvious scenario in which this applies is to foreign languages. The Irish Times reports that about 1,900 students were due to sit minority languages this year and, of these, just over 900 will not receive a grade for that language because they have no body of work on which to estimate the grade for the ruling to be of assistance.

The decision is important in a broader sense, as it indicates that the courts will be willing to hear challenges to the CGS. Therefore, despite the changes made by the government to the CGS, and the willingness to allow grade inflation, it would not be surprising to see such challenges in the coming days. Two groups seem like the most likely candidates to do so. First, there are students in high performing schools who feel that the removal of the school historic data disadvantaged them. Second, there are students who sat the Leaving Certificate last year but who only applied to college this year (i.e. they did not defer a place). Because entrance requirements to third level institutions in Ireland are only set after universities are informed of the national results for the year, the entrance requirements for individual college degree courses vary year on year depending on (i) the number of places available; (ii) the number of applicants; and (iii) the applicants’ grades. This year’s grade inflation is likely to push the entrance requirements higher so, even though students who sat the exams last year were not graded through the CGS, they may feel that the grade inflation puts them at a disadvantage. On the other hand, there will be fewer international students coming to Ireland this year, so there may be slightly less pressure for places on particularly popular degree courses.  At the end of the day, the true impact of the CGS on entrance requirements – and likelihood that students will turn to court legal challenges in an attempt to secure their preferred college place - will only be evident when university offers are published on 11 September.