Why trust is key to making calculated grades work

Posted on: 11 May 2020

I doubt if the music of the late American songwriter Kenny Rogers ever made it on to the Leaving Cert music syllabus. He passed away earlier this year and a line in one of his songs speaks to the historic decision by the Government to swap this year’s Leaving Cert exams for calculated grades.

In his song ‘The Gambler’, Rogers sang: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run.” We’ve seen a significant gamble play out over the past weeks and the decision in early April to delay the exams until late summer was not an unreasonable first hand to play by the minister, given the public health advice at the time.

Establishing July 29 as a start date provided optimism and challenge to students. Talk of a brief preparatory return to school, social distancing and moving Junior Cert exams aside offered a possible roadmap to the Leaving in late July. Or August.

Across the table from the minister, however, sat a formidable new player whose next moves aren’t easily anticipated. Could our luck line up to bring 61,000 students and invigilators into exam centres in late summer, complete exams and publish results in time for a delayed entry into college in the autumn?

Publication on May 1 of the Government’s roadmap for exiting Covid-19 restrictions brought a sobering mood to the table. Phases four or five didn’t offer much optimism for massed gatherings of students in July or August.

The State Examinations Commission was sitting its own problem-solving examination – how to run the exams alongside a bewildering array of conditions set out by the Department of Health. In the end, it simply couldn’t be done safely in a logistically practical manner. The minister folded his hand, but not before laying one last card – calculated grades.

There are different views on this, but I’m with Kenny Rogers. You’ve got to know when to walk away. The terms calculated grades and predicted grades now fill the vacuum left by the decision to forego summer exams. I’m easy on what we call the new grades because that doesn’t really matter. What matters now is that we have a plan that can be delivered, a plan that should minimise stress and risk for students and enable them to move on.

Calculated grades are estimates for what students might have received if they completed the orals, practicals, project work and exams. Teachers and schools will follow procedures to arrive at estimated grades for each student. Any parent who has attended a parent-teacher meeting in sixth year will likely have heard similar estimations from teachers about their child. Mindful of some research around calculated grades in other jurisdictions, the Department of Education offers advice to schools about minimising bias when generating student marks.

Equally, parents and students need to trust teachers and avoid the canvassing for grades that some parties fear. Specifically, the concept of relational trust needs to move centre stage. This trust stems from professional respect between the parties, personal regard, perceived competence in role and personal integrity. Schools rely on maintaining relational trust amongst all members of the school community and calculated grades will certainly test this trust.

Results supplied by schools will be adjusted to fit patterns of results at national and school level over the past years. The process will not be perfect, but out-waiting the coronavirus was not going to be perfect either.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have confirmed they will use these grades for admissions purposes. Irish HEIs know a thing or two about workarounds for unadministered exams. They are implementing alternative assessment arrangements for over 232,000 students this semester, allowing students to progress and graduate this year. I don’t expect that the qualifications awarded by HEIs will be regarded with suspicion. Great care has been taken to ensure the probity of alternative arrangements to protect the integrity of qualifications. This can be achieved with Leaving Certificate calculated grades also.

Schools retain much data about student learning. According to the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey, Irish teachers exhibit high confidence in their ability as educators. International surveys such as PISA and TIMSS bear this out – the performance of Irish students in reading, mathematics and science are significantly above average internationally.

Teachers enjoy public support and they operate under a demanding code of professional competence developed by the Teaching Council. This all suggests that schools and teachers can meet the requirements set out by the department and provide grades in a professional manner. Undoubtedly challenges, anomalies and individual cases will arise, but this would happen also if we waited for coronavirus to go away.

There will be arguments that the minister should have stayed at the table a while longer and tried to run the exams in August, or September. Maybe it would have worked. Maybe not. Perhaps there were other ways to do the Leaving this year? Given Ireland’s high dependence on terminal exams at the end of sixth year, however, the degrees of freedom were reduced.

During the financial crisis that preceded the current one, former Greek finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis wrote a memoir. The book, partly titled ‘Adults in The Room’, described the inner workings and fractious meetings of EU leaders during that period.

In the past weeks as pressure mounted over how to salvage something workable for the Leaving Cert class of 2020, thankfully, the adults and representatives of students were in the room.

Prof Damian Murchan is head of the School of Education in Trinity College Dublin

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