Leaving Certificate Matters

On the last day of a very busy first week of the new term I’ve finally cleared a backlog of things and thought I’d take a break for a quick comment about the arrangements for this year’s Leaving Certificate which has implications for this year’s University admissions (amongst many other things).

It has been decided that this year’s Leaving Certificate will revert to the pre-pandemic style of written examinations, but with the important proviso that the overall distribution of marks will be scaled to be no lower than the results last year (when accredited grades were taken into account). In addition the examinations will offer students more choice, so that they have to answer a smaller subset of the questions than in the good old days before Covid.

Last year’s Leaving Certificate results revealed a big increase in scores and consequent changes in offers for many courses. For example, the points required for our Theoretical Physics and Mathematics course (MH206) at Maynooth University went up by about 50 to around 550. Perhaps surprisingly this resulted in the admissions to this course going up by about a factor three. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this here.

The reason for scaling this year’s results is to ensure that students entering third-level education this year are not disadvantaged relative to those who left school last year and took a year out. Also, there is much less information on which to base accredited grades, because of pandemic interruptions.

My concern about the announcement is not so much about the return to formal examinations but on the matter of choice. Take Mathematics for instance. Instead of answering questions in each of 10 sections, students this year will only have to answer questions from six. That means that students can get very high grades despite knowing nothing about 40% of the syllabus. That matters most for subjects that require students to have certain skills and knowledge for entry into University.

In my own discipline (physics) we already have to get new students rapidly up to speed in, e.g., calculus – a difficulty exacerbated this year by the fact that the first Semester was shortened as a knock-on effect of delays in Leaving Certificate process – this is likely also to be a problem for next year’s entry. I can see we’re going to have to do a lot of thinking over the summer about how to deal with this.

Overall I prefer the Leaving Certificate over the UK system of A-levels, as the former gives the students a broader range of subjects than the latter (as does the International Baccalaureate), but I still have doubts about using a simple points count for determining entry into third-level education. Changing a system so deeply embedded is likely to prove difficult, though, so we for the foreseeable future we just have to make the best of what we’ve got.

One Response to “Leaving Certificate Matters”

  1. […] “On the last day of the first week of a very busy term I’ve finally cleared a backlog of things and thought I’d take a break for a quick comment about the arrangements for this year’s Leaving Certificate which has implications for this year’s University admissions (amongst many other things) …” (more) […]

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