The Leaving Certificate Exams have three main roles: sorting, incentivizing, and signalling. The exams serve to sort students into third-level courses where the students will perform well and contribute to the performance of their peers; they incentivize secondary school students to study hard and learn, and the examination process allows students to signal their academic abilities and their work discipline by doing well on them.
The pandemic shutdown has created learning and emotional challenges for sixth-year students, and also worsened the “digital divide” between students with supportive home environments and expensive computer technology and those without. An accommodation needs to be made for students who have not coped well in this very challenging environment. It is also sensible, where possible, to reduce the size of examination hall numbers. At the same time, cancelling the examinations entirely and replacing them with very noisy and low-information estimated grades seems an inferior plan.
The government, teacher’s unions, and Department of Education officials need to quickly step up and show courage and wisdom in implementing a solution that is not a muddle-through compromise designed only to appease political pressures. The cabinet including its senior members need to oversee and back whatever solution is quickly chosen and implemented. One obvious possibility would be a rigidly-capped estimated grades option (perhaps capped at H5-O1), together with an exam option for those students who feel that they can exceed the H5-O1 level, or exceed the estimated grade (below H5-O1) that they expect to receive.