Research shows some increase in number of students taking higher level subjects

January 17, 2019

The Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh T.D. announced today that the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has published research on the early impacts of the revised grading scheme for Leaving Certificate examinations which was introduced in June 2017.

The reform of the Leaving Certificate grading scheme was designed to help to reduce the pressure on students at exam time and enable them to have a broader and more rounded learning experience in their senior cycle. The implementation of these reforms is being overseen by the Transitions Reform Group, which is chaired by the Department of Education and Skills and whose membership includes representatives from across the education sector.  

The revised Leaving Certificate grading scheme now has 8 grade bands whereas previously there were 14 grade bands. The smaller number of broader bands was designed to ease the pressure on students to achieve marginal gains in examinations, and encourage more substantial engagement with each subject. The new scheme also awards points to candidates who receive a mark of 30-39 % on a higher-level paper in the Leaving Certificate, equivalent to the new H7 grade, and is designed to encourage the take-up of higher-level subjects.

The research, commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on behalf of the Transitions Reform Group, shows that overall, more students are taking higher-level subjects, especially Irish, English and Mathematics, as a result of the new grading system.

There has also been a reduction in the number of students who are randomly awarded a course in higher education as a result of the changes, the research showed.  The findings also indicated that students adopted the new grading scheme without much difficulty. 

However, the research also shows that this increase in the uptake of higher level subjects has led to a weakening of the overall grade profile for higher level examinations, which was an expected outcome of the reform. This is most notable in the cases of Mathematics and Irish, where the increase in the number of students taking these subjects at higher level has been accompanied by an increase in the number of students attaining lower grades. The number of students sitting higher level Mathematics rose from 28% in 2016 to 30% in 2017, while the numbers sitting higher level Irish rose from 42% in 2016 to 46% in 2017.

A further finding from the research relates to the relatively lower take-up of higher level subjects in smaller schools and in disadvantaged schools that form part of the Department’s DEIS programme.

Schools in the DEIS programme didn’t record the same increases in higher-level take up, widening the gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools in term of the proportion of students taking higher-level courses, while small schools faced constraints around class sizes and their ability to offer subjects at different levels to their students.  

Students in the study considered that the gap between the points awarded for higher and ordinary level papers was too wide and did not reflect the effort and workload involved at ordinary level.

Students opting to study higher level subjects were motivated by the rewards of persevering with higher level courses, with Maths being notably singled out for the bonus points awarded for those achieving over 40%. However, the research shows that this created a difficulty for some students opting to study higher level who may not have the capacity to undertake that level.

Commenting on the publication of the research, Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh T.D. said: “I welcome the publication of this research by the ESRI and the NCCA into the revised Leaving Certificate grading system. This research provides a valuable insight into the early impacts of these changes and will help shape future policy on these important issues. We are still at an early stage of the reforms and we will need to continue to assess their impacts on students.”

Selina McCoy, Associate Research Professor at the ESRI commented: “The research points to challenges for students in making subject level decisions – with the incentives such that they feel pressure to stay with higher level, even though they may feel ill-equipped. As a consequence, time on other subjects is displaced and additional stress is created for students.”

John Hammond, CEO of the NCCA said: “The publication of research on the impact of the new Leaving Certificate grading system at this early stage is useful and timely, pointing the way towards further monitoring and research that will be needed as the changes involved bed down in the senior cycle experience. They’re also noted in the context of the extensive review of senior cycle education currently being undertaken by the NCCA.”