Repeat exams are taking place in many universities and colleges around the country at this time. For students who failed an exam the first time, repeats offer a second chance for students to demonstrate their knowledge in a subject area. Failing an exam the first time round is usually a sign that a student didn’t work as hard or as strategically as he or she needed to during the year. Or perhaps the student didn’t do justice to what he or she knew the first time. Revising for a repeat exam probably takes some enjoyment out of the summer holidays. Nevertheless, most students who repeat will resume their studies with their peers in the coming weeks, experiencing minimal disruption to their progress through their chosen course.
Students who fail the repeat exams generally have to repeat the year. Such a consequence is more serious for students because their studies are interrupted for a year. Friends will have progressed to the next year of the programme and the repeating student may find themselves at a loose end for the year, or under financial pressure if they are required to attend classes again. Although most students will get back on track at the end of the year, a handful will see the failing result as evidence that they have chosen the wrong course and they may decide to change the direction of their career.
The opportunity given to college students to repeat exams, within months of first taking them, contrasts with what happens to Leaving Certificate students. Despite the possibly life-changing consequences of failing a subject or performing poorly in the Leaving Certificate, a student must wait a year before taking the exam again, even if the student feels ready to take up a job, an apprenticeship or a college place. Would it be so bad if students were permitted to repeat their Leaving Certificate examination in August, or early September? Or would it even be possible? Advantages of allowing students to repeat their Leaving Cert in the same year include: easing pressure on students when they do the Leaving Certificate the first time, having the same syllabus and prescribed material for the repeat exam as that studied over the two years, and enabling students to move on from post-primary education as they had anticipated.
But there are drawbacks too. First, it would cause headaches for those who organise the Leaving Certificate. Although duplicate (or contingency) exam papers are always prepared, rescheduling oral language exams and practical projects would be logistically difficult in the time available. Furthermore, teachers who mark the exams would be less flexible in their availability because schools will have re-opened. Acquiring suitable venues could also be problematic if schools are open for regular class. The logistical difficulties for staff would be particularly acute if appeals of results were being considered at the same time. Repeating a Leaving Certificate in August would give little time for students to revise but leaving it until September or later would cause problems for universities and colleges that allocate places based on Leaving Certificate results. Places could not be allocated to any students until the repeats were over.
Should an option to repeat be open to all students or only to those who have failed a subject? If repeating in the same year were only possible for those who received a failing grade in a subject, this year a total of 18,813 papers – 5.2% of papers graded – would be eligible to be repeated, though many students may choose not to repeat. However, if repeating is only permitted for those who fail, some students could fail strategically first time round. The strategy would be to work really hard for say, four exams in June and deliberately fail the others, and then work hard for the other three exams in the repeats. This could be a good strategy for students to manage their marks and to receive a better overall Leaving Certificate result. The exam system would need to ensure that there is no incentive to deliberately fail some subjects in June and repeat in August.
A better estimate of how many students may want to repeat is found in the number of students who appeal their Leaving Cert grades. In 2010, 10,333 grades – just under 3% of the total grades awarded – were appealed. (The number of students who appeal is fewer than this because some students appeal their grade in more than one subject.) If students were unhappy with their grades in 10,333 cases, it is likely that there would be about that many repeat exam sittings (compared to 363,583 sittings first time round).
There is merit to the idea of allowing students to repeat their Leaving Certificate subjects in the same year, but there are challenges. The scale of the exam makes it more difficult to organise repeats than it is for exams that are organised independently within university and college departments and introducing a same-year repeat facility would run the risk of having students use the option strategically to gain an advantage over their peers. On balance, repeating the Leaving Certificate exam in the same year, in its present format wouldn’t work.
Possibly that could change if the first round of the Leaving Cert were held at the same time as the mock exams are currently held (substantially shortening two-year programme), or if the resources currently dedicated to the appeals system were redirected to organising a repeat (probably unlikely). Alternatively, the current option of repeating the Leaving Certificate a year later might be more palatable if transition year was placed after rather than before the Leaving Cert. Meanwhile those school leavers who go on to third level institutions can take comfort in the fact that they will have a second chance at those exams.