Are points fair?

Over the past few days there has been a little debate in the pages of the Irish Independent about the CAO points system. Briefly, for those not familiar with the Irish education system, the CAO is the clearing house for university and college entry, and the points which represent a student’s currency as an applicant are based on his or her performance in the final secondary school examination, the Leaving Certificate. At the end of a report on Friday in the paper on the MacGill summer school, the Independent‘s education correspondent Katherine Donnelly made the following comment:

‘One of the problems with tinkering with the points system is that, while it may be brutal, it is fair – and it’s the devil everybody knows.’

On Saturday, this drew a response in the paper’s letters to the editor, in which an educationalist questioned the appropriateness and fairness of the points system, arguing in particular that it disadvantaged those who could not resource the exam preparations, and that it did not encourage critical thinking and holistic teaching and learning.

Katherine Donnelly’s comment is understandable, in that it represents what is still probably a majority view. She was probably in any case not voicing a personal opinion. But the author of the letter was right: the points system may be known and may by now be familiar or even predictable, but it certainly isn’t fair. And it is so hard to dislodge because, to cut to the chase, it suits ambitious middle class parents because they know how to play the system and have the resources to make it work for them. It disadvantages under-resourced schools or families, and it distorts the popularity of certain university programmes. In fact, I have tried and I cannot find a single persuasive reason to retain it, other than that changing it will be hard work.

I believe that the points system, and indeed the Leaving Certificate that it has helped to distort, undermine this country’s future, and I intend to repeat that message wherever I can for the next while. Reform is urgently needed, and it is time for us as a country to overcome our lethargy on this particular issue.

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29 Comments on “Are points fair?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I think the response in the paper said it all basically. I suppose one could argue that the points system is fair in that it is anonymous, someone grades your paper who has no idea who you are and then you are allocated to a place without the university knowing who you are. Thats good. But de facto it is not neutral with regard to other characteristics of an individual. As I think has been well documented, if you know someone’s class then you can predict how well they will do. This is clearly unfair. But this is not a fault of the assessment procedure but rather of the school system which produces large socio-economic (& other) gradients. So to some extent, the unfairness of the points system is a symptom of the underlying problem rather than the problem itself.
    From what I can see, the two essential steps that are required to address this problem are:
    (1) Take the “heat” out of the points system by reducing the mad rush for certain professions.
    (2) Ensure that young people’s chances of getting a good secondary education do not depend on an accident of birth.
    To do either of these will take a huge amount of work. But thats not why they will not happen. It is because one would have to confront the vested interests who stand to lose so much. We are more likely to land a man on Mars, sadly.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Why not call a minimum level for entry then take 10% from each segment up to the top 600. If 350 points is the reasonable level for Medicine, then 25 is the segment, if 400 then the segment is 20. And I’m sure that the CAO computers can spit out the random numbers.
    The universities can do this all on their own and can reasonably tell the all comers to mind their own beeswax. Now that should bleed some of the steam out of the system. You still get whatever good that the points system has, if any. While allowing a chance to all those that you see as qualified entry, while still being anonymous and autonomous.

  3. The points system is clearly and demonstrably unfair, because ab initio, two different individuals with the same level of initial ability can’t expect the same outcome in terms of points once we differentiate them by what their parents do for a living. The game is clearly fixed. Any replacement for the points system would require universities and other higher education institutions doing their own thing, in terms of matriculation. But, thinking this through, it means the ‘better’ schools will become more specialised, deforming incentives even further. For example, say DCU decides it will become a ‘Science’ school, and emphasize this in its matriculation exams. Well, any school that wants to punt out high-caliber scientists should invest way, way more time in science subjects as a result.

    Similarly, in terms of the professions, which Irish people seem to love becoming, Law, Medicine, etc could simply become graduate degrees, with more generalist undergraduate degrees (requiring different matriculations) coming first. That would certainly take the ‘heat’ out of the leaving cert process.

    Another, very easy, step is to stop the ‘binning’ of leaving cert results. Compute the distributions of As, Bs, Cs, and so forth in this excel spreadsheet, you’ll see what I mean: there are always roughly the same percentages of As and Bs in each year, for 20+ years! That is insane. It tells us the system is *not* fair, in any sense, because any student on the margins of those bins gets lumped up or down, more or less on a statistical whim.

    How likely is it that in, say, maths, there were 20 years where the average grade was the same? It’s nonsense. The pressure on grades is created because of this arbitrary normalisation, and by little else.

    I’d love to see a conference or book explore the alternatives to evaluation mechanisms for, say, 50-80 thousand young people per year, where these conditions (points, binning of grades, attendant deformation of student/parent incentives) were not met, and in fact were actively discarded.

  4. Liam Delaney Says:

    This argument is a little light on alternatives so far though acknowledging some of Steve’s suggestions. I remember the huge happy feeling all the way through my leaving cert year that I would be assessed anonymously on ability (albeit in an imperfect fashion) rather than by some stupid committee armed with small-town prejudices and arbitrary criteria. If anyone believes that a system that gives local autonomy to schools to pick their own winners would not produce more distortions then I would be happy to challenge them. Also, I would hate to see a system whereby colleges like TCD and UCD started interviewing students outside of the rare instances where it is currently done. Aside from being unfeasible given the size of the cohorts, it really would be a horrible vista, piling on all sorts of uncertainty and insider knowledge effects.

    There are clearly things that can be done to make the point system more efficient. For example, individual courses should be allowed to set weights for different subjects. It is ridiculous that somebody with a mathematical genius could score the highest leaving cert in the country in mathematics and yet not get into a maths-based subject because they did not do so well on Irish and English. Ditto for the future Seamus Heaney who does not do well at mathematics.

    I cannot see how the Leaving Cert system is especially tailored to middle class parents. Clearly they can play the system better but how is this different from any system? Am completely open to being swayed here but I am thinking of my suspicious former 16 year-old self who was happy to step into the ring provided it was done on a fair basis. If you had asked me to interview for TCD or go through some local nonsense I would have just told them to shove it.

    Surely, the lesson from Kevin’s research and others is that we need to fix the secondary school environments that working class kids come through and not tinker too much with the admission system. Some of the commenters above should at least give some thought to the guys that are busting their ass and getting 600 points per year. This nonsense about randomly allocating the places to students in the 500 points plus bins would drive me absolutely crazy if I were in their position and would do absolutely nothing for the socioeconomic mix in medicine and the professions.

    • @ Liam,

      Good points on the local/insider aspects, but these can be overcome.

      A matriculation at a specific university needn’t be interview-only, though this would help for subjects like medicine. Matriculation would help Seamus Heaney 2.0 by allowing them to shine in areas they are particularly good at. The exam could be anonymised quite easily, and allow the individual university to select the type of skills they think meet the courses they have on offer: we’d see some specialisation, of course, but that would be a good thing I think. The LC is most definitely tailored to middle class students, in my opinion.

      While higher professionals account for less than 5% of the population, their children account for close to 1/3 of students on courses producing professions. In contrast, in 2008/9 not a single son or daughter of a unskilled labourer did medicine. The system wasn’t fair to young Delaney at 16, because it ensures that someone with less ability but more money will do at least as well as young Delaney at one standardised assessment, the outcome of which significantly affects future earnings, social standing, etc, throughout their lives.

      Of course I’m open to any suggestions. As someone who busted their arse for high points, and got them, I’m quite certain that most of that effort was wasted, in hindsight. Although 14 years on, I can *still* tell you the latin name for an earthworm, and give you the life cycle of the liver fluke, complete with labelings. Also the diagram of the human eye, the design of a fridge, and some Latin declensions, for some reason.

  5. Liam Delaney Says:

    I think it is important for people calling on wide changing reform of the Leaving Cert to start putting up proposals and see how they meet scrutiny. One reform would be to bring back fees and allow the market to do its work – forget entry criteria all together other than minimum level and allocate places based on willingness to pay. To be honest I would prefer this to a system where we started allocating places based on things like extra-curricular involvement, roundedness, ethos-alignment and so on. At least it wouldn’t be hypocritical.

  6. Liam, would love to see that, too. I think a return of fees is inevitable, and hope students begin paying the cost of their tuition, at least to some extent. Funding problem solved. The further question of ensuring equity of access is much more difficult. My own preference is for matriculation based on individual module requirements, as decided by the faculty of each university.

  7. Liam Delaney Says:

    “Liam, would love to see that, too” – I think you are picking me up right Steve but just to clarify I am not in favour of a system based solely on willingness to pay. In order of preference, I would prefer a merit based system without fees to a system solely based on fees to a system based on arbitrary definitions of merit. Some people argue that the Leaving Cert is an arbitrary measure of merit but I don’t think they have demonstrated this convincingly. People study hard for the LC and get rewarded for this in my view. There is an SES gradient which reflects long-ranging intergenerational processes that our school system is not sufficient to handle. But nobody has given a convincing way of dealing with this through the admission system.

  8. @ Liam, just to clarify, what I’d like to see is the range of constructive proposals, debated in a disinterested way. Your proposal is one among many. Surely a menu of various options might be drawn up, and the menu’s strengths and weaknesses debated?

  9. Liam Delaney Says:

    Steve – I don’t see how having specific matriculation would help the time-wasting aspects or the SES gradient. People kick the leaving cert a lot but I can think of few other systems where aiming to score high points puts you in touch with such a wide range of knowledge. If you went to a system like SATs or subject-specific matriculations the middle-class advantage would be just as high if not higher. Do you think that markets would not develop to train little johnny into the master sudoko player he would need to be to get through some of these systems. By my own criteria above, I could not be too critical as at least these systems are transparent. But it seems they are more problematic than the broad-based leaving cert if keeping an educational ethos in secondary schools is at issue.

  10. Liam Delaney Says:

    Again just to be clear Steve, my proposal would be similar to Kevin’s which is offer more scholarship supports to bright working class kids who make the grade and substantially increase investments in secondary schools to ensure that more of them make the grade. And spend less time naval-gazing about the Leaving Cert. It is a symptom – it is not the problem.

  11. Liam Delaney Says:

    “@ Liam, just to clarify, what I’d like to see is the range of constructive proposals, debated in a disinterested way. Your proposal is one among many. Surely a menu of various options might be drawn up, and the menu’s strengths and weaknesses debated?”

    I agree with this Steve. My sceptical tone is directed at those who lay the unfairness of the Irish educational system at the door of the LC. This is usually couched in woolly thinking and I have never heard any serious argument to back it up. I don’t in any way think it is a perfect system so I will of course keep an open mind to any positive suggestions for making it better.

  12. Aidan Says:

    I am not sure that the points system really is to blame. If you were designing a system from scratch you would clearly like to reward those who were better at mathematics with a higher grade than those who are weaker. The fact that universities convert this into a points score is not really an issue. Where it is a problem is if those with better grades in unrelated subjects can get on a degree before those who have the right grades in the related subjects. That’s why universities need to set minimum entry requirements (e.g. you might need a C in French to study it).
    The issue in the Irish secondary system seem to be that repetition is rewarded above creativity. Why else can those grind schools so busy?
    What I recommend is a system which does have examinations but that assesses people more fairly. I would propose having open book/open internet examinations. Writing an a critical analysis of a poem should not have anything to do with your ability to remember the poem or what the grind school told you to write. It should be about your own substantiated view.
    Subjects like languages and mathematics/physics are actually tested fairly in the LC as far as I can see. You cannot bluff language ability or mathematical ability through regurgitation (unless you are asked to prove theorems which is an exercise in pointlessness I remember from my own school exams).

  13. kevin denny Says:

    Thats been a very interesting exchange! On a small point, I agree with Aidan’s comments about maths being fairly assessed (don’t know about languages). A number of people, myself included, have found that Leaving Cert maths points are better at predicting university grades that “regular” points, even in non-scientific subjects. Its not that you have to be mathematical to be clever but its just you can’t bluff.
    I think this debate reminds us that there are several problems to be addressed: there cannot be a silver bullet. So we need to deal with the fact that young people from low SES backgrounds are seriously under-performing in school. This problem clearly doesn’t start when they are 18 even if thats when we notice it (if ever). This needs to be complemented by other policies such as Access Programs.
    There is also a problem of assessment: clearly regurgitation goes a long way in some subjects. This makes no sense and really only benefits the mini-industry devoted to helping students memorize their way to university.
    But I would re-emphasize a point I made above about the professions. Given the excess profits made by certain professions there will inevitably be a crush to get in. A recent report, by Forfas I think, said that public sector medical consultants in Ireland were paid more than in any country, a multiple of what they make in Finland, for example. Lawyers too, since they control their own supply, also earn excess profits (the technical term in economics is rents). Unless we are prepared to tackle this issue the points race will continue to exist in some form.

  14. Al Says:

    In terms of skills development, the LC only offers generic exam preparation skills that may assist in university exams but dont prepare the student for the world of work be it as a employee, self employed or academically in research.

    Tis easy to give an answer to an asked question, harder to question questions.

    In this sense the LC is a detour and distraction from a more useful skills development, skills that enable work, higher education and research.

  15. The term “points system” is misleading. Let’s be accurate: it’s a market. It delivers scarce college places to those who have accumulated points awarded for reproducing memorised data. Some students are simply good at this, some work very hard at it and some can buy additional help. So, like all markets, it’s unfair.

    It might be argued that a better system would be one which gave everyone an equal chance to memorise the material but it would be much better to change the product. Come on, the points system is ridiculous but it’s not the most serious problem.

    These might be of interest:

    • ” Come on, the points system is ridiculous but it’s not the most serious problem”: Colum, I’m not sure I agree with that. You are absolutely right that it is a market, albeit one riddled with restrictive practices. But the distortions it contains work backwards into the education system and in turn distort the LC curriculum, teaching and learning methods, and even parts of the primary system. It is a serious bit of poison in the system!

      • Ferdinand, I agree that the points system needs to change and I agree with your remedy. However, without changes to the examined LC learning objectives, the raffle remedy would simply cause “deflation”. I’ve written here before and on my own blog that, despite what is frequently said, too many students gaining college places lack basic skills: they are not fully literate, they have poor maths, they lack general knowledge, they have no basic grasp of science/technology, they are unused to argument. The problem is that not only are they passing the LC in this deprived state, they are getting good results. They achieve by memorising material and methods. (The attraction of grind schools is that they are thought to offer better notes and techniques.) The approach applies as much to math as history but the former is considered “hard” because it is difficult to memorise. Anyone who has thought seriously about the information/smart society realises that this approach to education grows more problematic year on year, while public debate is mired in waffle about the need to emphasise the sciences over humanities!

  16. Liam Delaney Says:

    Ferdinand – you really have to back these assertions up with something, in fact back it up with anything at all so we can have a debate rather than an exchange of platitudes. My apologies if you have already outlined your position in detail. What system do you have in mind that wouldn’t lead to some element of gaming and focusing on the admission criteria rather than the broad educational goals? I do not want to set up camp as defender of the status quo and I hope there are visionaries hoping to continuously improve and adapt our system but the emphasis on the points system just seems wholly misplaced. It reminds me of the completely misguided argument about grade inflation that you rightly attempted to steer back on a sensible track a few months ago. Surely the issue is the quality of the secondary schools and the suitability of our curricula for the lives that our students will be living in the next fifty years. And I do not accept that having to compete in a national impartial merit-based contest to gain access to scarce places is unfair in itself. The unfairness comes earlier. Until thought-leaders like yourself get that point fully the system will waste a lot of time and consultancy reports on the wrong issues.

    • Liam, there are a whole lot of things tied up in this. But the chief one is that, at least for the past 20 years or so, the entire secondary school system has been focused on university entrance; and because this is so, everything is steered by CAO points outcomes. It is this rather than anything else that has created the rote learning mini-industry, and we (the universities) are wholly to blame that we haven’t stopped this. We have tolerated a system that controls entry but encourages all sorts of wrong behaviour prior to entry that students then have to unlearn. It just makes no sense. Secondary education can only be reformed, realistically, when we have set the context by reforming the CAO.

      As for the alternative, my own preference (which I have set out before) is to set minimum entry requirements (unrelated to market-driven points), and then allocate places by lottery. It would be a much fairer system, with far fewer unacceptable side-effects.

      • Al Says:

        I would strike a little deeper here.
        It seems to be an Irish dogma that we insist on a system of equality and pat ourselves on the back for it.
        And then willfully ignore the flaws as long as possible or demonstrate mental inflexibility when problems emerge.

  17. Liam Delaney Says:

    “There is also a problem of assessment: clearly regurgitation goes a long way in some subjects. This makes no sense and really only benefits the mini-industry devoted to helping students memorize their way to university.”

    This is a good point by Kevin and surely something that occupies common ground.

  18. Liam Delaney Says:

    “As for the alternative, my own preference (which I have set out before) is to set minimum entry requirements (unrelated to market-driven points), and then allocate places by lottery. It would be a much fairer system, with far fewer unacceptable side-effects”

    Thanks Ferdinand – I will think about the lottery system. You are right that it does not have the distorting properties that some of the other suggested alternatives entail. It clearly is biased against those who would “win” in an assessment based contest (be it points or otherwise). But it clearly cannot be stated apriori that this bias would be worse than the distortions generated in a points system. I really doubt that doing this would have a positive effect on the secondary school system, however. At a fell swoop you would remove the main incentive to study and do well in exams. Surely it would be better to reform the curricula, leaving the points system as the powerful carrot to motivate students to learn.

  19. (Was enjoying the debate here, then had to get on a plane)


    The point system is an allocation mechanism for scarce 3rd level places–that I think we can agree on that. The question is: does the points system, relative to any other allocation mechanism, help or hinder the average person, who has studied their subjects, however organised by curricula, to death?

    What we all want is a meritocracy, where those most able, get onto the courses they are most suited to, as they choose. That isn’t happening right now, because at least some of those most able for a particular course can’t get onto that course, because the points for it are being driven up by natural competition and system-gaming (grind schools, etc).

    I think we can accept inequality of educational outcome, if the outcome is based on merit. If not (upper middle class mummy and daddy bought grind school time, thus I fly into medicine), then I think a fair society should try and do something about that. I know, I know, there are more platitudes here than actual constructive points, but here’s one system that seems to work pretty well, without the focus on points:

  20. Liam Delaney Says:

    I dont get this Steve, I really dont and we are probably at the proverbial point of needing to thrash this out in person or agree to disagree. We go from a system where people study for two years a broad range of subjects from mathematics, sciences and languages and compete in a national exam with a completely impartial and transparent correction process to a system where students get no credit at all for their two years of work and then complete some arbitrary test designed by specific colleges. Let me repeat, the ambitious middle class parents that this debate seems to dread so much and their children will still be able to gain an advantage in this system just as they do in the SAT system in the US. I don’t see how it solves anything. If anything the industry to game these tests could be a lot bigger and more diversified and an even bigger distraction from educational objectives – I am only half joking when I say that the aim of many of these tests seems to be to screen for champion board-game players rather than good students. Furthermore, college-specific assessments would conver enormous benefits to insiders including people who had siblings who went through the system and so on. I dont think either a young Delaney or a young Kinsella would have been encouraged very much by the prospect of having to second-guess what a TCD committee was going to look for in a potential application. There really is a prospect of making secondary schools better so that bright kids from nontraditional backgrounds could do better in the LC. There is no hope of making them so good that such kids would be able to play that kind of game.

    The Leaving Certificate is suffering somewhat from insiders or former insiders capturing rents through provision of tuition but it is more open than a system where individual colleges chose their own criteria. When a bright person now wants to go to Trinity at least they know what the route is. Do you really want some nonsense where access to a good college became a function of knowing what individual colleges really have in mind by their assessment forms. Sure, we all have to face this bull in the big adult world but it would be nice to think we could keep an open-system for school-goers. I really could not face a system whereby answers to questions like “why do you think you are suited to study in UL?” or “How do you think Ireland will benefit from your time here?” became criteria for entry. Would be more like picking the Rose of Tralee than allocating places to the best students.

    • Vincent Says:

      Just WHAT in Gods name are you on about. Crack that 500 down to 40.
      You did learn how to to do that.

      • Liam Delaney Says:

        “Crack that 500 down to 40.”

        In less than 40 Vincent, points are not the problem. Compared to standardised tests, the LC promotes broader learning and compared to college-specific tests it is fairer and less open to arbitrariness and bias.

        • Vincent Says:

          I’m sorry buckoo, but unless you are attempting to be amusing in that there is a punch-line. 2500 words as comment might be accused as being self indulgent.
          And I’m well aware I could be charged of that crime on this blog.

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