‘Gradual’ return to normal Leaving Cert results to begin next year

This year’s Leaving Cert results to issue on August 23rd, earlier than last year

Norma Foley has pledged to 'accelerate' Leaving Cert reform

There will be a “phased” return to normal Leaving Cert results from next year following several years of grade inflation linked to the Covid-related disruption to education.

It means this year’s Leaving Cert students will continue to benefit from a “postmarking adjustment”, which will keep average results in line with the high levels of recent years.

However, results for the class of 2025 will be lower on aggregate as part of a gradual return to more normal patterns.

Leaving Cert results are currently, on average, 7 percentage points higher than pre-Covid averages.

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They are expected to fall to about 5.5 percentage points above pre-Covid averages from 2025.

Minister for Education Norma Foley has also confirmed that Leaving Cert results will issue on August 23rd this year, slightly earlier than in recent years.

From next year, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will apply a postmarking adjustment which will bring the overall Leaving Certificate results in the aggregate to a point broadly midway between the 2020 and 2021 level.

The level of future year adjustments to exam results after 2025 and the timeline for phasing out a postmarking adjustment will be informed by next year’s experience.

Senior higher education officials have criticised Leaving Cert grade inflation on the basis that it distorts academic achievement and leads to the bunching of students on top marks, leading to random selection for entry to some courses.

In addition, some have said more students are struggling in demanding university courses on the back of gaining entry to courses with inflated grades, leading to a rise in dropout rates.

Pól Ó Dochartaigh, deputy president and registrar at University of Galway, said: “I welcome this. It is belated that it is being finally announced and it could have come a lot sooner.”

Others pointed out that it will fall to Ms Foley’s successor in the Department of Education to deal with any fallout from the decision, such as students being disadvantaged in the points race for college places compared to those on inflated grades from previous years.

One higher education source, who asked not to be named, said: “It seems bizarre that a decision is being made now for something that will happen after the election. It makes a noose for whoever succeeds the minister in office.”

In a statement, Ms Foley said: “As is widely recognised, we must return aggregate results towards pre-pandemic levels. However, given the disruption to teaching and learning for students, it was right to maintain overall results at their current level in the last two years through a postmarking adjustment.

“It is right to do so again in 2024, with the majority of students this year not having had the opportunity to sit Junior Cycle examinations given that most students sitting the Leaving Certificate examinations in 2024 would have completed Junior Cycle in 2021.”

She said the education system must, over time, return to normal arrangements for Leaving Certificate outcomes, and “by making a modest, gradual reduction in the level of postmarking adjustment applied, we will minimise the impact on students in so far as possible.”

Ms Foley confirmed that the process of returning Leaving Cert outcomes to pre-pandemic levels will begin for 2025 students and it will be a gradual process, in line with her commitment that there would be no “cliff-edge” in terms of a return to pre-pandemic outcomes.

“This means there will still be a postmarking adjustment exercise in 2025 that will seek to bring the overall set of results on the aggregate to a point no lower than broadly midway between the 2020 and 2021 levels,” she said.

“While lower than the 2024 outcomes, results on the aggregate in 2025 are expected to be above 2019 levels by at least 5.5 percentage points. on average.”

The SEC has also advised that it intends to issue the Leaving Cert 2024 results on Friday 23 August.

Minister Foley said the date will bring “welcome certainty” for this year’s students.

She also announced that existing assessment adjustments – such as greater choice of questions in exams – for Leaving Cert which apply for students in 2024 will continue to apply in 2025.

These existing assessment adjustments have been in place for the past two years and again this year will stay in place in 2025.

Ms Foley also confirmed that in respect of Junior Cycle, the assessment adjustments in place since 2022 in relation to Classroom-Based Assessment will remain for students sitting the Junior Cycle in 2025 and 2026.

Guidance for schools on this will issue “in due course”, informed by the findings of a study into the impact of Junior Cycle reforms.

How exam results were inflated during Covid

An increase in the overall set of end-of-school results has been noted in Ireland and internationally following pandemic-related interventions.

In Ireland, the implementation of teacher-estimated grades in 2020 and a combination of teacher-estimated and exam grade in 2021 saw grades jump, on aggregate, by a total of about 7 percentage points higher than before the pandemic.

The extent of increases were even greater in higher level subjects.

In order to ensure students who had been impacted by the Covid pandemic would not be disadvantaged in the CAO points race compared to students who received inflated results in previous years, the Government pledged that there would be no “cliff-edge” drop in terms of the overall set of Leaving Cert results.

Two types of intervention have been implemented in recent years to help achieve this.

The first was adjustments to the exam and assessment arrangements by incorporating additional choice for students and, in some cases, additional time.

The second was the application by the SEC of a postmarking adjustment to the marks arrived at though the normal marking process in both 2022 and 2023.

This postmarking adjustment inflated aggregate grades to ensure they remained the same on average since 2021.

Education authorities argue that this approach was justified given the ongoing disruption to learning which students had experienced as a result of the Covid pandemic.

However, it drew criticism from universities who argued that so many students were achieving top grades that it made it difficult to differentiate between top candidates for sought-after courses.

While the UK moved to return to more normal results in recent years, Ms Foley says it is only now timely to plan the return to normal Leaving Cert outcomes and phase out the postmarking adjustment.

However, it will fall to Ms Foley’s successor in the Department to deal with any fallout from the decision.

It is intended that in 2025, a postmarking adjustment will mean that results on the aggregate are expected to be above 2019 levels by at least 5.5 percentage points on average.

Once the 2025 exam process is complete, the experience will be reviewed in order to determine the approach for the following year.

In relation to exams and assessment adjustments, in 2024 and 2025 these will be the same as that applied to State exams in 2023, but updated as relevant.

Details of the adjusted assessment arrangements for every subject/module descriptor in the Leaving Cert and Junior Cycle programmes will be issued to schools “in due course”, and schools will be asked to ensure that all students are made aware of these changes.

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