Wednesday, June 03, 2015


At nine o clock this morning, thousands of students sat down in Irish schools all over the country to begin their state exams. Exams are always a controversial topic, especially in the past year with Junior and Leaving Certificate reforms coming into play, but whilst we often hear from teachers and politicians on the matter, sometimes the perspective which we are lacking is the most important one: that of the student.

Whether we like it or not, we face tests and exams at various points all the way through our lives. Everyone can remember those primary school Drumcondra exams, or taking your driver theory test. Opinions on exams are mixed, but there is one fact that I think everyone can agree on: they are necessary. For example, if there was no testing infrastructure in the allocation of driving licences, imagine the road – it would be a disaster!

When thinking of examinations, as a student I tend to jump to the Leaving Cert, given the fact that I’ll be facing it in a year. As examinations go, these state exams tend to come under an enormous amount of scrutiny, and sometimes as though they are overcriticised. First of all, some sort of testing system is required at the end of second level education, and whilst it has its flaws, the leaving cert does the job pretty well. In fact, it is wonderfully simple in comparison to say, the Australian ATAR system, in that it can be summarised into a single sentence: those who are capable of doing the college course of their choice stand a good chance of getting said course.

It is easy for people to put forward the idea that the Leaving Cert and indeed exams in general are not a measure of someone’s intelligence. Contrary to what you may think, I agree. But the point is, it’s not supposed to measure intelligence, it’s supposed to measure eligibility for third level courses. The exams measure your performance in a school and testing setting by challenging you on what you have learned throughout your two years of the Leaving Cert cycle. When going to college you will be in a similar setting, so it makes sense that you should be examined in this context. Exams do not measure intelligence - they measure competence (and of course, how much study you have put in).

Another complaint often heard about the exams is that they do not take into account extra-curriculars and other activities. This is quite a reasonable point, one that I have experienced myself: I travel quite a lot which means I tend to miss a lot of school (however I am lucky to have such supportive teachers and staff at Kinsale Community School that help me to find a good balance). However, I encourage you to look at it from another perspective: you don’t go to a soccer match and get tested on you maths ability, just like you don’t go to school and get merits for being on a soccer team. These activities done outside school are incredibly valuable – and that is what your CV (or resumé) is for! As I mentioned above, the Leaving Cert points system measures your capability for the college course you want, and because your soccer ability more than likely wont be of use during your biochem degree course, it isn’t counted. But then when it comes to employment, you can include these fantastic extra activities to show that you are a well-rounded and involved person by including them in your CV or job application.

My one pet hate when it comes to criticism of examination systems, particularly the Leaving Certificate, is the assertion that they are entirely based on memory. Firstly, why the connotation that a good memory is a bad thing? Learning a language is basically remembering vocabulary and grammar rules and then putting them into practice. If you succeed in state exams this cannot be simply chalked up to memory because the nature of the state exams is such that without a fundamental comprehension of the topics, memory is nothing. Furthermore, upon close examination of many of the subjects, memory has significantly less of an impact than originally thought. For example, the French exam (I cannot comment on any other European languages as I do not study them). The written paper consists of comprehensions and essays, neither of which focus on memory, rather on a secure grasp of the language. 25% of the grade is based on an oral, and 20% can be gained from the aural. Now in my opinion, that is a pretty comprehensive test of one’s understanding of a language - and from what I hear the other European languages are structured similarly. From personal experience of studying all three sciences, memory is a component, but comprehension is significantly more important. And then of course, maths, which is about as far from rote learning as a unicorn is from a dinosaur. Which is why I find it interesting that many of those who complain about the exams being a memory test also have an issue with the 25 extra points for passing honours maths.

Now, I’m not unreasonable. I accept that our examination system has flaws. But instead of sitting around complaining about it, why don’t we try to come up with solutions? I know that resources will be an issue, especially in this economic climate, so I would propose that we use an already working system on which to piggyback the reforms. To tackle the complaint about the points system not taking other aspects like communication skills and community involvement I suggest an interview process similar in format to the Irish oral, where students can discuss their achievements, passions and interests with an examiner for up to say, 25 discretionary points. I realise that a problem with this will be that this system is quite subjective which contrasts sharply with the anonymous, impartial system we have currently. However I never acknowledge a fault without providing a possible solution so that is mine.

The last thing we need to remember about exams is that your results do not define you. Honestly, I do not believe society places too much store in exam results, but I can understand how those who feel the pressure of exams might feel that way. Even employers know that there is more to a person than letters or numbers on a piece of paper, and I truly believe that if you are willing to work hard, you will find a way to succeed.

Finally, whilst I have focused on the Leaving Certificate here, this rings true for many testing structures and examination system in our lives today. We in Ireland have little cause to complain: we are provided with free second level education; significantly cheaper third level education than in the US or the UK; and our examination system is so unbiased that a teenager from Kinsale has just as good a chance of succeeding as the son or daughter of a government minister. There are three things you can be sure of in life: death, taxes and examinations – and as tests go, the Leaving Cert isn’t all that bad.

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