Seanad debates

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Adjournment Matters

State Examinations Issues

4:05 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, to the House. Senator Clune will share time with Senator Barrett.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House to respond to this matter which asks for a full inquiry into how mistakes were made, particularly in the leaving certificate honours maths paper. The State Examinations Commission has apologised and stated it could have caused stress. It caused a lot of stress and distress. The subject of honours maths has received much attention recently. I have always been a supporter of awarding bonus points for the subject, which is reflected in the uptake of the subject and of related courses at third level, which is very positive and necessary. Honours maths is a difficult subject and this has been acknowledged. It can cause a lot of stress and students are advised to give 15 minutes to each question. The three angles of a triangle in one of the questions did not add up to 360° and this should have been spotted. The fact the solution did not work out would have caused further stress to students. The conditions under which students found themselves were not uniform. The State Examinations Commission has stated the possible impact will be taken into account when completing the marking system. It is very difficult to have a consistent approach.

It is particularly unfortunate this has occurred in the honours maths paper. With the introduction of project maths quite a number of papers must be produced but we should have checks and balances. We need a report so that teachers and students who sit the exam next year can have confidence and we can see what exactly went wrong. It is easy to stand back and examine these issues in the cold light of day but the highly stressed situation of an exam hall must be factored into our reaction to this matter, into examining the papers and into preparing the papers for next year.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. We are all on the same side. Not that long ago the Minister wished 116,845 people good luck in the examinations. We had a very good discussion in the House yesterday but it was overshadowed by much less creative events.

Mistakes were made and the apologies so far have been like those give by one senior counsel to another. This is the State apologising to 15 year olds and a little more sympathy is required. I know this is the Minister's nature because I have known him for such a long time. People do not want to apologise because they are afraid they may end up in court. This involves young people who are under great stress, as Senator Clune stated. We should consider some forms of redress also. The apology stated that these errors may have caused some distress and confusion. They did so and the word "may" should be removed. This is a stressful period. The Minister is trying to tell other education stories other than on exams and it is unfortunate this happened.

Two mistakes were made in question 8 but the apology was for an error. The apology also states no candidate will be disadvantaged by the more significant error. The two errors were with regard to an internal angle and an external angle. The Minister is an architect and Senator Clune is an engineer and it is a pity we did not have such expertise to correct the errors.

The ordinary level paper for project maths also contained two mistakes as it contained two items which were not on the syllabus in questions 5(b) and 5(c) and only one has been apologised for. No apology has been issued with regard to question 6(b) on the ordinary paper, which 40,000 students took. They were asked to construct an axial symmetry which was not on the syllabus. The junior certificate exam also contained a typo as one of the questions should have read -1 -4 and not the two put together -14. The statement apologised for some of the errors to the 15,000 students who sat the leaving certificate higher level paper 2, to the 1,276 students who sat the ordinary paper, the 2,441 who sat the foundation paper and the 1,500 who sat the junior certificate paper. Another 30,000 were a victim of another junior certificate error and another 40,000 students should have an apology for the axial symmetry question.

The custom is that when errors are made they are read out before the exam starts. We must do away with this. The exam is tense enough without students wondering what they heard. If there is a written error the correction should be in writing. Erratum slips are inserted into publications and this should be the practice for exams. We must liaise much more with the mathematics teachers' association. We need them involved in the proof reading and printing. With the support of everyone in the Oireachtas, including this House, the Government has the goal of having science and technology as the way to go. Another disturbing report has been issued today by the Educational Research Centre about our deficiencies in this regard. What happened in the exam does not help with an important national goal which we all share.

This must be corrected. The 116,000 students affected want redress. I would give full marks to anybody who attempted question 8. The apology stated every effort will be made to ensure no candidates will be disadvantaged by the more significant error in question but two errors were made. This subject gives bonus points for getting into high point faculties. I know the Minister has other ideas about this, and we share them, but at present these points are needed and we are causing distress to 116,000 students. Perhaps the State Examinations Commission should have been less legalistic and more altruistic and sympathetic, as we all are, towards 14 to 18 year olds at this difficult time in their careers.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I thank the Senators for raising the matter. At the start of these exams I stated that while 116,000 young students sit them at least 500,000 relatives, parents, brothers, sisters and everybody else do the exams alongside them, so this is a much bigger issue. It is not unique to this country, but it certainly generates far more coverage than would normally be the case. I will ensure the comments made in this Adjournment matter are brought directly to the attention of the State Examinations Commission.

The State Examinations Commission was established as an independent agency in 2003 to deal with the operational issues relating to State examinations. Running the examinations is an immense logistical operation. The examinations involve more than 116,500 candidates in more than 4,900 main examination centres and 10,000 special centres. The process also involves more than 250 different test instruments, 90 curricular and 15 non-curricular subjects. It is a big logistical test.

The State Examinations Commission has indicated that question 8 on Monday's leaving certificate maths higher level paper 2 contained, as Senator Barrett correctly stated, not one error but two.

The commission has advised me that there were also errors in three other mathematics papers, both leaving and junior certificate, provided to candidates this year. The SEC acknowledges that these errors may have caused confusion and distress for some candidates, and it has apologised publicly. I accept that it did cause confusion to many people.

The process of creating an examination paper encompasses a number of stages including drafting, setting, proofing, translating and signing-off stages. The development of examination papers is controlled through a range of guidelines and protocols that govern the work of the personnel involved. The Chief Examiner for each subject is responsible for the preparation of examination papers and their marking schemes, and has overall responsibility for the content, standard and quality of examination papers. I presume that includes accuracy as well.

Contract personnel with relevant subject expertise and experience are appointed and comprehensively trained to draft and set the examination papers under the supervision of the Chief Examiner. At each stage of the drafting-setting process the examination paper is proofread and reviewed by the setting team in accordance with the Commission's procedures. The proofing process involves the review, revision and processing of edits to the draft material. The SEC's protocols require marking schemes and, in subjects such as mathematics, worked solutions to be prepared in tandem with examination papers, and assessment grids are used to ensure that questions on examination papers are on the published syllabus. I have to tell the Senators that concern has been raised about that matter as well, separate to what we have been speaking about.

Although the SEC has a range of procedures in place to enhance reliability and to minimise error, it is an unfortunate fact that errors can occur on examination papers from time to time. On occasion, errors are not detected in advance and come to light during or after the sitting of the examination. The SEC aims to preside over a system that is completely error free. However, it is recognised in examining circles that this will always be an aspiration rather than a completely achievable goal.

The SEC has expressed its regret for these errors, and I welcome that it has done so. When errors occur, the SEC must focus on two issues. As a priority, it seeks to ensure that no candidate is disadvantaged as a result of an error that has occurred. Therefore, the impact of these errors on students' answers will be taken into account by the Chief Examiner when finalising the marking schemes for these exams. The marking schemes will, as usual, be published along with those in all other subjects after the issue of results, in mid-August in the case of the leaving certificate and in mid-September for the junior certificate. Leaving certificate students can view their marked examinations scripts to see how the published marking scheme has been applied to their work, while all students have the option of appealing their results. Then, in the context of the specific error, the SEC reviews its existing processes and procedures in order to implement measures to strengthen the quality assurance underpinning the preparation of examination papers.

I assure the House that I have asked the SEC to report to me comprehensively on this issue. In particular, I will bring to its attention and to the attention of the Chief Examiner the remarks made by Senator Barrett and Senator Clune on the impact any marking system might have on the outcome for students, particularly leaving certificate students to whom CAO options are of critical concern.

4:15 pm

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. I welcome that he will ask for a full and extensive report. I welcome in particular his comments on those students who will be expecting points for their CAO courses. It is important to acknowledge that.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for yet again illustrating his hands-on approach to these matters. The suggestion of announcing that there is a mistake in something in writing is not good enough. When these errors are discovered after printing we should be able to print erratum slips to deal with that because I can imagine difficulties arising under examination conditions if an announcement is made in what may be a very large hall, where acoustical difficulties may arise. If the error is in print the correction should be in print, and I ask the Minister to consider that.

The SEC should comment on the fact that more errors than were apologised for have since come to light, and we have drawn attention to those in the mathematics papers and perhaps be more fulsome in its apology. We are talking about young people of 14 or 15 years of age doing the junior certificate and this could give them a bad impression of education. We are all there to try to help restore Ireland for them, and this is not a very good start.

I appreciate the Minister's sincerity and involvement, and I thank Senator Clune for raising the matter on the Adjournment. I wish the Minister well. His attitude towards young people and students might help to inform some of these apologies and explanations. On "Morning Ireland" Cathal Mac Coille was worried that the tone was to justify the organisation and not to consider the 116,000 young people, as the Minister did on the day the examinations started.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I thank the two Senators again for raising this matter in the Seanad. I will bring the details of this debate directly to the attention of the chairman and the chief executive of the SEC. I will also ask them to indicate the steps they propose to take to make sure that the concerns expressed about the errors in the mathematics paper in particular, in addition to the other errors, can be addressed and to outline the early warning mechanism available to us. The logistics are extraordinary. We all make mistakes, and mistakes will be made into the future, but if a mistake is made after the printing we need to know the corrections that can be put into the papers. I would not hold out much prospect in that regard because of the sheer logistics involved but I will certainly raise it with them and see what can be done.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 June 2013.