Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

State Examinations

10:25 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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1. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the exact statistical model used for the national school standardisation process for leaving certificate results in 2020; and the way in which gender and socioeconomic status will be taken into account when assigning calculated grades. [19310/20]

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the first of these sessions. I hope we have many useful exchanges during the course of this Dáil. A briefing was organised yesterday, so to some extent events may have overtaken my question, but not all my concerns were addressed. There is still significant concern that the calculations model will be affected by a school having had low results in the past or by its disadvantaged background. Even gender appears to be a factor. We do not know what the model is. It has not been published. I have asked the Minister to publish it. She has not done so. I have asked the steering group to publish it. I believe it should be published because students deserve to know how grades are being calculated.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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The purpose of the calculated grades system is to arrive at the grade each student would have achieved if the leaving certificate examinations had taken place as normal. Students' expected performance in a subject and level is combined with information about how students in a school have fared in the subject in recent years in line with national performance standards over time and with their performance in the junior certificate.

Using a range of different but complementary sources of data will provide the most accurate and fair set of results possible. No single pattern of expected results will determine the calculated grades on its own. The model will combine the range of patterns to generate the grades in a way which is as reasonable, fair and accurate to students as possible. The design of the calculated grades model was informed by advice from a technical working group comprising experts drawn from the State Examinations Commission, the inspectorate of my Department, the Educational Research Centre and international external experts.

While these data sets do include certain demographic information, this demographic information is not being used as part of the process of generating the calculated grades through the standardisation process. However, to make sure that the standardisation process is doing what it is supposed to do, a separate and additional process of validation is being carried out. Validation serves to ensure that the statistical standardisation process presents results that are fair, equitable and in line with previous outcomes to the greatest extent possible. It also serves to check whether the model is resulting in any particular group being advantaged or disadvantaged relative to previous years.

The use of demographic characteristics, including gender and the socioeconomic status of the school, was inherent in the technical working group's design of the calculated grades model. Not to run these checks would run the risk of not being able to tell whether the standardisation process is working to ensure that the leaving certificate results of 2020 are properly comparable with leaving certificate results in any other year.

My Department has published a short guide to data collection, national standardisation and quality assurance which provides further details about the workings of the calculated grades model. This is available online.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I did not hear anything from the Minister there that I did not already know. I have had concerns about calculated grades in the past. I recognise the difficult situation and I had numerous conversations with the Minister's predecessor on what should happen next. I have particular concerns around school profiling. My concern is that young adults applying for their place in university will not get it and students who might not fail the leaving certificate otherwise will do so. We have been assured that these statistics will not be used, that they are only there to kick the tyres of the system, as it were, and check that it is working. However, the first document the Department produced stated that grades will be adjusted taking things like demographics and gender into account. All subsequent documents repeated this. It is quite reasonable that people are concerned, especially when the model has not been published. I have requested its publication so it can be subject to public scrutiny and we can all understand how the different inputs will affect an individual leaving certificate student or class. They deserve to know. There must be transparency here.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. I must reiterate that all possible checks and balances have been put in place to ensure that the calculated grades model is a fair and equitable system. The 2020 leaving certificate will have the same high quality and integrity as the 2019 leaving certificate and indeed that of 2021 and other future years. While these data sets include certain demographic information, it is not being used as part of the process of generating the calculated grades through the standardisation process. However, to make sure that the standardisation process is doing what it is supposed to do, a completely separate process, referred to as validation, is being carried out.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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There is a certain contradiction in that. If the model fails the validation and does not produce the result we expect from a particular demographic or gender, there will have to be adjustments. Grades will either have to go down or go up. That has real implications for students. It really is not good enough.

The Minister has not answered my primary question. There is a model. It deserves to be subject to public scrutiny. Why will the Minister not publish the statistical model? It is complex and technical, but there are many people in the public sphere who could take a view on it and inform the public discourse on whether it is fair. We can all think of examples of exceptional students within classes with weak results, or exceptional classes that might have bucked the trend. They were depending on their ability to perform in exams. That is gone now. How can they have any confidence that this model can guarantee fairness? I recently came across a class where there had never been a grade higher than a C in agricultural science. There were five A1 grades in the class's leaving certificate results. There is no junior certificate in agricultural science. How could junior certificate results have told us that class would perform so well? We must have confidence. Will the Minister publish the model so we can all scrutinise it?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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To clarify, the demographic information is not being used to generate the calculated grades through the standardisation process. My Department has published a short guide to data collection, national standardisation and quality assurance which provides further details about the workings of the calculated grades model. This is available and has been published online.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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That is not the same thing, as the Minister well knows.