‘I cannot remain silent. Students have been unfairly disadvantaged ‘
They usually only last 12 minutes, but oral exams are crucial in determining a Leaving Cert student’s performance in a language subject.
The oral components represent between 25 and 40 percent of the overall marks of the final exam, depending on the language.
In normal years, an external examiner visits a school to conduct oral interviews with candidates and rate their performance.
This year was different.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, teachers were appointed by schools to conduct the interviews, which were recorded and sent to the State Examination Commission (SEC). These recordings were then rated by independent reviewers appointed by the SEC.
Since the format of this year’s exams – a choice of exams or accredited grades – was not agreed until mid-February, it was a race against time to organize the oral exams which started on the 26th. March.
The SEC says it has provided full advice to principals on the arrangements that would apply to these oral tests, followed by instructions for oral interviewers on the detailed format.
However, several language teachers who spoke to The Irish Times said this subject-specific directive came just three days before the start of the oral exams.
In addition, no training was provided to interviewing teachers who in many cases had no experience of examining an oral test for state exams.
The instructions for oral-language interviewers – released on March 23 – make it clear that strict adherence to the guidelines is mandatory to ensure fair and accurate results for candidates.
âYou are required to give each candidate an equal chance to demonstrate proficiency in oral communication. This objective will be achieved by careful and constant observance of these instructions. “
The structures of the oral exams vary according to the subject; some, like French, focus on general conversation, while other languages ââ- German, Spanish, Italian, for example – tend to be more structured and may involve role-playing or sequences of projects or images.
The German oral exam, for example, has three parts: general conversation; project or sequence of images; and role playing.
The detailed markscheme given to examiners divides these elements into subsections that require a minimum number of questions.
The role-playing section alone, for example, requires the interviewer to ensure that the candidate has the opportunity to try five tasks.
One reviewer – speaking on condition of anonymity – has filed a protected disclosure with the SEC due to the extent of his concerns.
The examiner noted a total of 78 oral and a significant number of them were not conducted according to the instructions for oral language interviewers, it was claimed.
In many cases, the reviewer said, the interviewer “systematically neglected” to properly process key sections, ask enough required questions, or follow certain instructions.
âThis negligence on the part of the interviewer meant that many candidates lost points through no fault of their own,â the examiner said.
This reviewer said that a majority of 64 candidates interviewed by the same teacher lost marks because key questions were not asked.
In some cases, the examiner said, strong candidates have been penalized in a way that “did not adequately reflect the candidate’s level of achievement.”
In another example, the interviewer did not follow the guidelines for asking the recommended questions during a role play section. âThe audio recording shows that the candidate clearly struggled because of this failure. . . In my opinion, the candidate was clearly capable of getting all the marks in this section if the right questions had been asked.
When the reviewer raised the issue with his consultant reviewer, he was told that he could only mark the content heard on the audio recording.
“I have not received any assurance that candidates will not be the losers in cases where interviewers fail to properly conduct interviews according to very clear guidelines,” said the examiner.
The examiner said they were told the interviews could not be judged because they “made the process easier without training” and the advice they received was “to completely ignore the investigators”.
In this case, the reviewer received an email from a consultant reviewer, asking them not to identify issues with the investigators’ work in their feedback reports, which are completed by each reviewer when all reviews are completed. .
“As we all know this has been an unprecedented year so she asked that we just write about the candidate scoring work and not mention anything about the interviewers at all!” the email says.
âIn other words, don’t write if the interviews were too long or too short; whether too many or too few questions were asked or whether the role plays were well reviewed or not. Just focus on the level of the candidates, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. . . In addition, please do not mention any school by name or any candidate by name or number. “
As a result, the examiner said, students will not know if any concerns or shortcomings were evident in the way their oral examinations were conducted.
As part of the appeal process, a candidate may request a copy of the oral interviews. However, they will only receive their own voice and will not receive the questions that were asked during the interview.
The Examiner states: âSuch a directive contradicts the standards of openness and accountability which are supposed to be at the heart of the State Examination Board.
In response to questions, the SEC said it depended on locally appointed teachers and school management to ensure that tests were carried out according to instructions.
âAs this process is ongoing and candidates who have taken these oral exams are now taking their final written exams, the SEC believes that it would be inappropriate and unfair for candidates to make any further comments at this time. , other than confirming its commitment that candidates will be treated fairly and equitably. . . “
The SEC’s mission statement is to provide “high-quality, candidate-centric state examination service” and its error-handling process states that it aspires to “preside over a system that is completely free of” errors â.
However, the anonymous examiner said that shortcomings in the oral exams this year should be kept hidden and that examining staff have, in effect, been asked to “ignore errors, to the detriment of the student”.
“Failure to draw attention to the major failures that clearly disadvantage exam candidates and threaten the standards of fairness, openness and accountability that are meant to be at the heart of the SEC would be an abdication of my duty,” he said. said the examiner.
“I cannot remain silent about a process in which exam candidates are at a no-fault disadvantage.”