Can this Government pass the test of delivering fair Leaving Cert results?

31 Aug 2020

Image: © charles taylor/

With the imminent release of calculated grades for Leaving Cert 2020, Elaine Burke wonders why a precarious Government would put all its faith into algorithmic bias.

After a tumultuous six months for secondary-school-leavers in Ireland, the calculated grades for Leaving Certificate 2020 will be revealed on 7 September. This year’s Leaving Cert results will be like no other that came before them, matching the rest of 2020’s unprecedented nature.

When the decision was taken that this year’s State examinations would not take place as planned, a new solution for grading the class of 2020 had to be found. An algorithm-assisted teacher-based assessment was settled upon to deliver calculated grades, and it’s highly unlikely that this results day will pass without consternation because of it.

Despite assurances that a disaster such as that which unfolded with the UK’s A-Levels will not happen here next week, the method by which Ireland plans to avoid the pitfalls so clearly signposted by our neighbour remains to be seen.

‘We’ve seen this year that no matter how hard you worked, you got given a grade based on where you live’

In the UK, the use of an algorithm to adjust teachers’ assessed grades made one noteworthy achievement: it confirmed beyond doubt that education and the grading system perched upon it is an unequal playing field.

While it’s fair to describe the system used to grade A-Levels as an algorithm, it wasn’t a black box system with layers of unexplainable intricacy derived from independent machine learning. It was more of a statistical model applying a set of ‘if this, then that’ rules.

In one case, a student’s grade was dramatically downgraded five places to a U, or ‘Unclassified’ grade. Perhaps because, statistically, a U grade would have typically appeared in her school or class grouping. This and many, many individual issues with the grading system is what forced the UK government to U-turn on the grading system, deferring to teacher-assessed grades only.

“We got told you can go wherever you want in life if you work hard enough, but we’ve seen this year that no matter how hard you worked, you got given a grade based on where you live,” said Jessica Johnson, an 18-year-old student in Manchester whose dystopian short story about a biased exams algorithm sustaining an unequal status quo won an Orwell prize. Johnson lived through her own fictional nightmare when her own results were downgraded.

The whole debacle led to the resignations of both the chief civil servant in the UK’s department of education and the head of Ofqual, the examinations regulator charged with the impossible task of creating a perfect system in an imperfect world.

In Ireland, the precarious tri-party Government won’t survive another ministerial upheaval if this goes wrong, and so – as for the students waiting on tenterhooks – a lot is riding on these results.

The tension as we near Leaving Cert results day is higher than ever, as the whole country has to face up to the test. The expectations for a successful outcome are low, the cost of failure high, and all involved seem to be bracing for a major fallout. There has already been legal wrangling ahead of the results roll-out, and there is certain to be more to come.

In the Irish Times, education editor Carl O’Brien noted that Leaving Cert students won’t immediately know if they have been downgraded thanks to a one-week wait to see how their teachers’ assessments compare to their calculated grade. “That’s one way to bury a potential scandal,” remarked Irish Independent columnist Colette Browne.

Of course, Ireland and the UK are not alone in facing this test of how to deliver fair grades without the usual standard exams. Results for the International Baccalaureate, an internationally recognised qualification, have been thrust into limbo thanks to a battle with the Norwegian Data Protection Authority over the use of personal data in assessment.

‘Statistical analysis is a great tool through which we can observe education inequality. It should not be a yardstick by which we measure a generation of students’

Educators are distraught at the prospect of codified inequality based on systemic issues, such as socioeconomic disadvantages. As I’ve said before, algorithms are as inherently biased as the society that makes them. Statistical analysis is a great tool through which we can observe education inequality. It should not be a yardstick by which we measure a generation of students.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio 1 on 24 August, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, told Claire Byrne that Ireland is in a better position than the UK with regards to predicted grades, and that appears to have been the last word on the issue. This was amidst the unfolding of ‘golfgate’ and, since then, the difficult return to schools in the age of coronavirus has begun. The scandal yet to reveal itself has been left lurking in the background, its moment in the spotlight soon to come.

Martin raised the point that grade inflation comes with its own problems, but the fact is there is no perfect solution for Leaving Cert 2020. That ship has sailed. So why, when faced with imperfect choices, are we deciding to make it difficult on the students and not the institutions? They have been through enough without having to overcome hurdles presented by a system they had no part in shaping.

An editorial in the Financial Times weighed up a system that is “collectively justifiable” but “individually unjust” as reason to be wary of relying on automated systems to make life-changing decisions, recommending review and certification of such systems by independent experts.

We, of course, don’t have time for this now, but in unprecedented times we must entertain unprecedented measures. Is grade inflation really the worst of the all-bad options on the table?

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.