There seems to be a consensus developing in certain quarters that the Leaving Cert (LC) needs a bit of an overhaul and many are making the case for the inclusion of a lot more continuous assessment (CA).
The arguments for more continuous assessment seem to include the following:
- There will be less pressure on students
- There will be less need for “rote learning”
- It will be fairer for students who are “not good at exams”.
Let’s take these one by one.
First, it is being economical with the truth to say that there will be less pressure on students in CA-rich system. With CA, students are under constant low-level pressure but pressure nonetheless. And, as long as the LC is coupled to college entry, every assignment/test/project will come with pressure because every mark will count. (And think of how this will play out with group projects!) Furthermore, my experience of CA at third level suggests that the standard deviation of CA marks tends to be lower than that of exams so even with lots of CA, the final exam is likely to be the tie-breaker. Pressure is unavoidable and if I were advocating for increased use of CA in the Leaving Cert I’d at least do a detailed study on the impact of CA on both learning and student welfare at third level.
Second, rote learning, or to put it more accurately, memorisation, is a key part of learning and exists at all levels of the education system. Learning off essays and the like seems undesirable but is it realistic (and fair) to expect anyone to rattle off a coherent, well-written essay on a completely unexpected topic, in half an hour, in the heat of an exam? No it’s not. In such a situation, memorisation is a perfectly reasonable and intelligent tactic. If people are worried about “rote learning” they ought to first think about the type of questions that are asked on LC papers and, just as importantly, about how those questions are marked.
Third, in my many years working in higher education I have encountered very few students who are “not good at exams” but very good at, say, project work, especially if that project work is cognitively demanding. Of course, the third level student population is not necessarily a representative sample of the population as a whole but as long as the LC is primarily an academic test – one that is used for entry to college – then exams seem like the fairest and most robust way of assessing students.
Finally, it is interesting that most proponents of increased CA are not teachers. There is one simple truth about CA and it is this: it significantly increases the workload on teachers and lecturers. It’s not just the fact that you have to design more assessments and mark them; it’s the fact that CA involves a lot of hassly stuff like having to set second-chance tests for students who for perfectly valid (and not so valid) reasons could not attend on the day of the test. Continuous assessment is, I suspect, one of the biggest sources of work-related stress in the third level sector.