All those years ago, the brother would have walked into pharmacy, medicine, law or any other high-ranking discipline. But he showed maturity and didn’t pursue them simply because he could. He took economics instead, for which he had more than ample points. Today, according to the Central Applications Office (CAO) website, he would barely qualify for the same degree course. The medical schools would screech with laughter if he approached.
My own, more modest, results, which got me into a history degree in 1988, wouldn’t qualify me to take a diploma in toenail maintenance in the Ballygobackwards regional technical college. So I have to believe in grade inflation. Otherwise I’m even thicker than I already suspect.
This isn’t all about the clever clogs: the number of people getting fewer than 100 points has dropped too, from 23.2% to 11.7%. If fewer people are failing, what does that say? Are the weaker students also getting smarter? I thought they were supposed to be rendered catatonic from too much television and junk food. This has to mean that either: a) telly and chips make you clever, or b) the exams are getting easier. Even I can figure that one out.
While the 1980s are practically the dark ages in academic terms, it seems that the big jump in good results has been achieved since 1992, when the current points system was introduced. Those who deny that there has been grade inflation since then put forward a series of arguments. They say students are more focused now on results because of the cruel points system. They work harder and get more grinds.
I don’t buy that. While competition is enormous for the professional courses with limited places, such as pharmacy, in the 1980s there were more students and they had to compete for a smaller number of places.
The number of pupils leaving schools in the past 10 years has dropped 20%, while the number of college places has gone up by 50%, so it’s much easier to get into third-level education now. That trend is beneficial to some extent, but has its limits. It means that weaker students get onto university courses that are still as difficult as ever. If you really want to check up on grade inflation, you need to look at university drop-out rates. Colleges are coy about providing these figures, but one trend stands out: students who get top points drop out rarely. Low-point students have a drop-out rate of 30% in some colleges. They might be getting better Leaving Cert results than their predecessors, but it doesn’t make them any more capable of getting a degree.
As for the brutality of the points system, I don’t understand why the CAO is blamed for putting pressure on students to achieve better and better results in order to get their desired course. The CAO does not set entry points for courses, nor do colleges. The only people setting the points are the students themselves. As today’s A students discover, success in the Leaving Cert is entirely relative.
The CAO is simply a clearing house. They get the results in, add up the points, and award the places strictly in order of merit. The absolute results in terms of As or Bs is irrelevant. Your results are good or bad only in the context of everyone else’s performance. It doesn’t matter if you get six A1s â€” if someone else gets seven, you are still not the best. The toughest courses, such as law or pharmacy, simply take the top students who apply. So students don’t need better results to get into the top courses, they just need to keep up with their peers.
How they keep up is another matter. The annual exam hysteria, which is about to kick in, has created a boom for grind schools who specialise in exam technique. Good for them, but guess what? Exam technique wasn’t invented by the Institute of Education on Leeson Street, it was always rife.
When I did my Leaving Cert, I did what any ambitious (or worried) student did. I got the syllabus and past papers from the Department of Education and worked out exactly how much I needed to know for the exams â€” or how little. I was particularly proud of establishing that I could cut out all the English poets from the English course. If I stuck to the Irish poets and read the easy “modern novels”, I would save buckets of study time. Everyone was at it. The teachers covered the courses by Christmas and spent the rest of the time revising and practising exam questions.
Of course, the really clever pupils made sure to pick subjects in which As were easier to achieve. Any aspiring law school applicant made sure to do Home Economics or Latin. Lamenting about exam-focused learning these days is a case of shutting the stable door 25 years after the horse bolted.
A Department of Education spokeswoman defending the mysteriously improved results last week said there had been “substantial curricular reform in the past 10 to 15 years”. She added that “the exams had become more accessible and student-friendly in design and format”.
Student-friendly? Accessible? Aren’t these just euphemisms for easier? Edward Walsh, a former University of Limerick president, has expressed his concern, citing wild grade variations from subject to subject and year to year. Everyone knows the “easy” subjects that award high grades more frequently. Walsh is particularly suspicious of better results in science subjects and wonders if it’s an effort to make them more attractive. Chemistry and physics used be notoriously hard and were avoided by point-mongering students.
Walsh suggests a normalised marking system that would bring more “statistical rigour” to the results. This involves deciding which percentage of students should be getting As or Bs and how many should fail. If they decide that 10% of pupils in maths should get As, and you get one, then you know you’re in the top 10%.
It would certainly put a stop to students picking subjects for easy As. It would also mean that an A today would have the same value as an A 20 years ago. My own A in maths would mean the very same as an A today. Top 10% then, top 10% today.
Well, all right, it was pass maths. But still, top marks anyway.