Posted tagged ‘points system’

Getting to the points

August 21, 2012

This post is coming to you from Ireland, where I am currently on a short break. As Irish readers of this blog will know, one of the hottest news stories here right now is the impact on university admissions of the recent decision by Irish universities to award bonus points to secondary students taking and passing higher mathematics in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The movement towards this position was described some time ago in this blog, including this post written almost exactly two years ago.

The background to this whole issue was growing trend for students not to do higher level mathematics at all, thereby making the pool of those eligible to take various science and engineering courses very small; while at the same time the demand for people with these skills was rising significantly. Ireland was thought to be at risk economically if this trend were not corrected.

Well, bonus points were introduced, and the trend was most definitely corrected. As information has become available about the recent Leaving Certificate results, record numbers are now succeeding in mathematics, and demand for science, computing and engineering courses is up very significantly. So is everyone happy? Not a bit. Concerns are now being expressed that the whole points system has been distorted, and that those with no interest in science and engineering are getting mathematics-based bonus points for their applications to do, say, classics or English literature. And so there are called for the whole thing to be reversed again, or at any rate adjusted to award bonus points only to those wanting to do relevant subjects. Even the Irish Times has weighed in with an editorial, and in the meantime the whole issue is also likely to be included in more general proposals made by the universities to reform the points system.

This last point is important. When still President of DCU I strongly backed the proposal to award bonus points for mathematics, for the reasons set out above; but I never thought this was the complete answer. The reality is that this and other issues can only be resolved if the entire Irish points system is overhauled and, preferably in my view, abandoned. It has seriously damaged Irish secondary and higher education. It is time for it to go. But while we are waiting for that, people should not worry so much about the precise impact of bonus points: they are doing what was wanted of them. Most particularly, they have brought students back into the sciences, which was vital for Ireland. Now is not to the time to get ambivalent about that.

University entry in Ireland: decided by lottery?

September 7, 2011

As long term readers of this blog will know, I am not a fan of the ‘points system’ which determines higher education entry in Ireland. Under this system, eligibility for entry into university programmes is determined by the points score calculated from the results of the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The points are a form of currency, and the price for which they provide the payment is determined by the popularity of programmes. The maximum points score is 600, and this or something like it is needed for entry into medicine. Very high points are needed for socially desirable subjects like law. Much lower points are needed – because the subjects are less popular – for engineering or computing. Since these subjects are by no means easier than law, the whole system is crazy. It has encouraged social ambition (particularly parental social ambition) and distorted career choices in Ireland.

Some years ago I suggested in a newspaper article that it would be better to replace the points system with a lottery. My suggestion was that each programme should determine what the minimum points were that were needed to ensure a student would be able to navigate the course successfully; and if there were then more applicants for the programme with the minimum points than there were places, the allocation should be done by lottery. This would be immune to influence and corruption as in the present system, but would not follow the existing framework’s tendency to distort student choice.

At the time my suggestion was criticized severely, and indeed I got very little support. Interestingly however, the Irish Times reports today that the idea has been picked up and recommended for consideration in a report prepared for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) by retired University College Cork professor Áine Hyland.

Ultimately the reform or abolition of the points system rests with the universities, who own it. It is to be hoped that they will take this particular idea for reform seriously.

Getting to the point

May 31, 2011

One politician who continues to impress is Ireland’s new Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn. Yesterday I attended an event organised by the Royal Irish Academy at which the Minister outlined the issues facing higher education and addressed certain challenges to the academic community.

Of particular significance is the Minister’s view that the CAO points system needs to be changed – a view I have been putting forward for some time. In his speech the Minister said that the points system is ‘designed around the dominant needs of a cohort of full-time, school leaver, entrants’, which no longer reflects the overall student body or how this is likely to be affected by demographic and other trends. He told his audience that they need to find ‘radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements.’

Elsewhere in his comments the Minister refused to rule out new student contributions or tuition fees.

Irish higher education is clearly facing some very difficult times, and given the state of the pubic finances there are no easy solutions. But the country has an education minister with a genuine interest in higher education and a determination to get things done. That’s a good start.

Off the points

May 5, 2011

According to last weekend’s Sunday Independent, the new Irish Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, plans to ‘axe the points race by 2014.’ I would wholly welcome the general intent, but I do need to point out (maybe to the Sunday Independent rather than the Minister, who will know this well enough) that the Minister cannot ‘axe’ the points system, as it is not his property. The only ones who can do that are the universities themselves, as owners of the Central Applications Office (CAO). Furthermore the Independent‘s article suggests that the universities have been complaining about the points system. Not so. I have, but I don’t know of many others in the higher education system.

However, the reported demand by the Minister to the universities to come up with an appropriate replacement is absolutely welcome. I have been saying for a long time that the points system distorts the Leaving Certificate curriculum and encourages the wrong learning methods, and furthermore it pushes young people into the wrong careers. In the interests of education reform it is now an urgent priority that the points system should go. As I have suggested previously, a lottery for all those who have met the minimum subject-specific entry requirements would be far preferable to the existing system, and would have the effect of distributing students between courses far more appropriately.

This is a good move by the Minister. The universities need to respond positively and quickly.

Understanding why students drop out

October 29, 2010

Just over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education Authority published a Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which set out some of the more detailed data on student drop-outs broken down by institution and by subject. The study is extremely useful, but on the whole it tells us a lot of things we already know, or certainly ought to know: that students with poorer Leaving Certificate (final secondary school examination) results are more likely to drop out of university; that woman are better at completing than men; that difficult programmes of study have a higher rate of attrition; and that institutes of technology have higher drop-out rates than universities. Perhaps less obviously, it also tells us that there is no significant difference in attrition between those from a better-off background and the less well off (though the latter are much less likely to get to university in the first place).

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Radio Station TodayFM to be a guest, together with the HEA’s Muiris O’Connor, on the late afternoon programme The Last Word with Matt Cooper. In considering the report of this study, and also in assessing the comments made by Muiris O’Connor in explaining it, I was struck by the fact that one absolutely key message was missing: the impact of the CAO points system.

As Irish readers of this blog know, the points system is essentially a market in programmes: if you want to study a popular subject you will need more CAO points than if you are willing to go for one of the less popular ones. The level of difficulty of the programme is neither here nor there; and so because difficult programmes are by their nature less popular, you find bizarrely that you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one. That this results in significant attrition rates for difficult programmes is hardly an earth-shattering surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that we know this and do nothing about it. And the reason why we do nothing about it is broadly the same reason why we won’t tackle fees – we are afraid of the wrath of the middle classes, who generally want to pour money into their children’s secondary education and then want them to be professionals rather than scientists, entrepreneurs or artists.

As I have mentioned before, the CAO points system is slowly but surely distorting and corrupting the whole Irish education system. We need to address this urgently. And as they own it, the people who need to tackle the points system head-on are the universities. It is time to act.

Educational anguish

August 22, 2010

Nobody could suggest that the Irish are not interested in education. I know of no country in which the annual final school examination results get as much coverage and as much in-depth analysis as is the case here. The quality of our schools, our higher education institutions and our students is the subject of public and private discussion in Ireland to a far greater extent than anywhere else. University stories of one kind or another (not always flattering of course) can be found in our media on a regular basis. Secondary school students write national newspaper columns. As a country, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of education and of its significance in the achievement of our national ambitions.

Then why, one might ask, if we are so obsessed with education, are we getting it so badly wrong right now? The entire national discourse is about how standards are falling, funding is inadequate, teachers are de-motivated, the secondary school curriculum is out-dated and not fit for purpose, our national literacy and numeracy is declining fast, universities are in debt, the system is being bureaucratised, graduates are leaving the country, employers are dissatisfied with our educational standards, subjects vital to national recovery are being neglected.

In the face of this general dissatisfaction it is easy to become fatalistic about it all; or else we may become mesmerised by it and fail to act at all, because there just seems to be so much that needs to be done. Or we may become hyperactive ‘fixing’ things that ironically are not particularly broken (as I think is threatening to happen regarding higher education) while neglecting things that are.

It seems to me to be a good idea to start with something we know has gone wrong: my gut feeling is that as a priority we need to address the cocktail of problems arising from the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system (which are closely related). The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.

In fact, most educationalists tend to agree that the points system is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what might replace it, and therefore nothing much happens. Politicians in particular seem to find it easier not to question it. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, drew some criticism from the education editor of the Irish Independent, John Walshe, when she indicated that the points system is the ‘fairest way’ of selecting students for third level programmes. In fact it is manifestly neither ‘fair’ nor functionally useful, but as so much of the educational edifice has been built around it, it is easier to let it be. Easier, but wrong.

The points system is the property of the universities (through the CAO), and if they act together they can introduce fundamental reform that might correct the distribution of students in higher education programmes and cause an over-due reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and pedagogy. Like everyone else, the universities seem to be paralysed by the whole thing and are unwilling to act. But the time to do so is now.

Liberating secondary education

August 17, 2010

The nature of Irish secondary education is determined by two things: the Leaving Certificate syllabus, and CAO points (the score calculated from Leaving Certificate results that determines higher education entry). In the overall scheme of things, very little else matters. As higher education participation goes up and up, the purpose of secondary education is not to provide a pedagogical experience in its own right but to shepherd students through the access points to higher education. On the other hand, this is done not by preparing students to be analytical and thoughtful in order to manage higher education, but rather by making them word perfect in a purely mechanical way in regurgitating the ‘right’ Leaving Certificate answers. This lethal combination of influences has totally undermined the post-primary intellectual purpose of education.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not making this point for the first time; most recently I addressed this issue here. Yesterday, however, there was some strong support from Tom Collins, acting President of NUI Maynooth and a highly respected educationalist, in an opinion piece for the Irish Independent. Here is how he characterised the issue facing us:

‘Apart from [the points system’s] impact at second level, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the system is no longer fit for purpose at third level either. There is a palpable concern in higher education regarding the capabilities and dispositions of students entering it straight from second level. The manner in which the points system rewards rote learning, instrumental learning and memorisation while simultaneously discouraging exploration, self-directed learning and critical thinking means that even relatively high achieving second-level students can struggle on entering third level.’

Professor Collins also suggested in his analysis that students entering higher education may be too young to benefit from it properly. He concluded:

‘Over many years of working in higher education, I am increasingly convinced that the student who has spent a number of years after second level in the world of work, volunteering or some other form of useful activity will perform better in higher education than the student who enters straight from school.’

In Ireland there tends to be a major rush to get students through education and into employment. I suspect that Tom Collins is right: that a break between secondary education and higher education may have significant advantages, allowing the students to enter university with a more mature outlook, and having perhaps left behind them some of the less useful aspects of the secondary sector. It is certainly worth a thought.

Are points fair?

July 25, 2010

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.

Getting to the point(s)

July 9, 2010

It is now just over a year ago since I explained in this blog why I thought the CAO ‘points system’ is undesirable. Let me recap, very briefly. For those who may not already know this, the CAO is the Central Applications Office, and it handles and processes higher education applications. It was founded by the universities and is jointly owned by them. In the 1990s it also took over the applications process for the Institutes of Technology.

The system used by the CAO to determine eligibility for particular programmes is the so-called ‘points system’. This attaches a points score for different grades achieved by students in the Leaving Certificate, the final school examinations. Because year on year  demand for places has outstripped supply on most programmes, the points system acts as a market currency. If you want to study a particularly popular subject, you need very high points to get in. Therefore the examination results needed to study the subject of your choice are not determined by academic criteria, but by the level of demand for the subject. This has over the past decade and more led to the absurd result that if you wanted to study law you needed much better results in the Laving Certificate than if you wanted to study chemistry. In fact almost by definition, the more difficult your chosen subject is, the lower the entry points – because difficult subjects tend not to be popular.

But it is worse than that. Irish families (and parents in particular) have tended to value the professions (law, accountancy, medicine etc) more than other careers, and so have tended to push their brighter children into these. And so the final stages of secondary education get consumed by social ambition and the resulting cramming of information by students to maximise their results, assuming (quite correctly) that rote learning memorising is what examiners are looking for. The result is that this whole framework makes secondary students study their courses the wrong way, make doubtful career decisions, and enter higher education programmes for which they may no taste or aptitude solely because they have the points. This in turn has pushed far more people into the professions than is good for this country, while neglecting areas that are vital for it; those latter areas also tend to get the less gifted students.

It has to be said clearly that this system is crazy. It makes young people study subjects for all the wrong reasons, and it has asset-stripped subjects that should be national priorities. It allows students with fairly mediocre academic credentials to study hugely complex subjects, and it pushes extremely bright students into subjects where their levels of intelligence will not particularly be needed.

But then again, why am I sitting here complaining? Why don’t I just use the little bit of time left to me as President of DCU to tackle the matter head on, and propose that we drop the points system. Doing so is in the universities’ hands. And if we did so, it would have a strongly beneficial impact on student learning methods and subject choices at second level. But in truth, while some of my complaints about the CAO and the points system are recognised as true by others, but mostly they don’t want to rattle this particular cage.

At an excellent event on the future of Irish education yesterday, organised by Intel in TCD’s Science Gallery, there was an overwhelming consensus amongst the large number present that the points system was damaging the education system in this country. It is time, I think, that the universities took notice of this mood and looked at major reform, in dialogue with secondary education. This won’t happen any more in my term of office, but it is something I shall press for before I step down. The country needs change.

Assessing aptitude

August 25, 2009

As readers of this blog will know, I am no fan of the so-called ‘points system’ in Ireland, under which applicants for university programmes are admitted in accordance with the points score they achieved on foot of their final school examination results (the Leaving Certificate). The result of this system is that the points needed to enter a certain course are determined by supply and demand rather than the demands of the course. For example, one of the most popular degree programmes has been law, and so it has attracted very high points requirements; whereas science subjects have been less popular, and students have been able to get admitted on much lower points – yet few would argue that science students need to be less gifted intellectually than law students. I have written on this topic in the past. My view has been that almost anything would be better than the points system, as it is pushing young people into careers for which they may not be best suited and which they are choosing solely because of the points attached to the relevant degree programmes.

When therefore those universities with medical schools, under some external pressure, agreed last year to alter their selection processes for medicine by introducing an aptitude test, I was certainly willing to consider this as a potentially useful initiative. What these institutions did was to use the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT), which has been developed by an Australian company. This consists of a multiple choice paper, which the student must pass and the results of which are then included in the computation of the points score (together with the Leaving Certificate results).

As the first group of would-be medical students has just undertaken this exercise, a debate has come alive as to whether it is a sensible mechanism, and indeed whether it might be applied to other programmes as well. In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper it is suggested that the Department of Education and Science might like to see this kind of testing considered more generally, while in the same paper the leading oncologist (and DCU adjunct professor) John Crown expresses serious reservations about the capacity of this kind of test to measure aptitude (or perhaps anything very much), and argues that a it may end up ‘favouring the clever work-shirker over the diligent student’. And still in the Irish Independent, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, takes a very different view and argues as follows:

‘The approach taken by the HPAT, combined with the Leaving Cert, provides an additional means of predicting the aptitude of a student for a particular programme. It operates in a number of other countries as part of the selection process for higher education. Unlike an interview process, it is transparently objective…

Far from decrying the HPAT we should seek ways in which this approach can be used more widely in our education system in tandem with older tried and trusted models of assessment.’

I’m not altogether sure where I stand on this, in large part because I have not seen what the HPAT looks like (though I have just ordered a sample paper). On the one hand, I am very strongly in favour of finding something better than the points system, which has over recent years become more and more damaging to Irish society. On the other hand, an aptitude test consisting of a multiple choice paper, which can be (and will be) the subject of grind school preparation, probably isn’t the answer either. John Crown’s view that only the very best should study medicine (and the nature of that profession may mean he is right) can be met by attaching a very high minimum points requirement to that programme. But we need to move away quickly from the current idea that in order to study biotechnology you only need to be about half as intelligent as you have to be to study law.

I am still inclined to think that once you have set genuine performance thresholds actual selections could be made by lottery, as has been done in the Netherlands. It would be better than what we have now, and would avoid adding one more controversial and maybe dubious testing element.