Today is Yesterday was (this post got stuck in draft) the day that the Leaving Certificate English paper 2 didn’t happen. The cause, this is really for my non-Irish reader (waves at Aunt Mary); a steward running the exam on Wednesday opened and put out paper 2 instead of paper 1 by accident in a school in County Louth.
This error has effected 51,800 students, and cost the steward his job. Admittedly, no one died. Only study plans are disrupted.
The funny thing is that this isn’t the first time such an error has happened. But this year the consequences are that the second paper is being sat on Saturday with a back-up English exam.
What occurred is a perfect storm of events…
Firstly, the timetable of exams changed. Until recently English papers 1 and 2 were sat on the same day (morning and afternoon). Since both exams are, well, tough and require a lot of writing it was felt that spreading the exam over two days would be easier on the students hands, if not on the students themselves.
If the error had occurred in the past, only the 15 students who received the wrong paper would have been effected. True they could have informed fellow students that the paper featured “macbeth, deception, bishop, keats, walcot, larkin …” to quote the tweet, but most (lets face it, there is going to be a little comfort cramming between exams at least) of the study would have been completed long before the exam. Having a full day between exams meant that the important information could get out there and get spread widely.
Secondly there is the nature of the exam itself. Paper two of the Leaving Certificate is regarded as one of the toughest tests in the pre-university examination system. In out system exam marks mean points, and points mean University places. The English syllabus means that the students have to study eight poets and guess as to which two or three would be on the paper.
Had this been the Mathematics exam, then the information would be harder to spread. After all knowing the type of maths question does not limit the study as much as dropping 6 out of 8 poets. Equally has this not been one of the “big three” exams of English, Irish and Maths, the reason to spread the information would have decreased.
So you have a high pressure exam, which most if not all the leaving certificate students will be sitting, where the important details of which can be summed up in three or four words; the names of the poets. Words which quiet easily fit in the space of a single SMS message. Or a tweet. So a small amount of information can cause a huge amount of damage.
The third part of this is the fact that social media played a part. And yes I’m counting the leaving certificate discussion section of Boards.ie as social media. In fact it appears that the public dissemination began on Boards.
The timing is interesting here. Boards only started seeing this information close to 4pm. This implies that the information only started leaking around then. What is likely is that those 15 students started passing the information as soon as the afternoon exam (home economics as it happens) was over. Given that the steward reported the loss of confidentially around 4pm, when parents of the children informed him, this sound about right. Even if the steward had reported the breach immediately (and maybe kept his job over it) the spreading of the information would have followed the exact same time line.
Or to put it another way, the Department of Education found out the same time that everyone else did. Posibbly a short while earlier.
At least one, mostly likely two or three of the children waited until they got home, and got internet access to talk to each other. This spread the word. Needless to say, it spread very quickly amongst a number of interested students. Then wider.
Now a lot of students cut back on social computer use (e.g games) during the exams. After all its only two to three very important weeks for which they have worked two years for. Discussion was rife.
And the department of education picked it up very quickly.
There is a backup exam in case of leaks. Normally what would happen is that effected schools would get the backup paper. For a single school a delay is tolerable as the second exam of the day could be delayed by the same amount. In this case, because of social media and the internet, every school in the country (and beyond, the leaving certificate is not only limited to Irish schools, but I can’t think of any places that use it) was effected. The issue changed from containing the problem to distributing the exams to all the test centres.
So the exam was rescheduled. Not everyone was in the loop. I’ve heard stories of students studying for the English paper after it had been rescheduled. Which probably means that they had shut down all connections for study reasons.
What does this mean for the Department of Education.
1) All leaks are now national leaks. Unless the leak is a mistiming (exam starts and ends early) then assume all the information is out there. Students can only be quarantined in special circumstances, for example the Jewish students who cannot sit the exam on the Saturday for religious reasons.
2) Different colour coding for papers. All the morning exams have a different colour cover from all the evening exams. When both papers were on the same day, there wasn’t an issue, the colours were different. When the exam because consecutive mornings, then it became an issue again. Using more colours, maybe 4 colours with alternating colours for different mornings and evenings. A quicker, cheaper fix might be have the second paper being on the following afternoon. Or the following week. One would make mistakes unlikely, the other would give more recovery time.
3) Sign-off. The steward needed to get two students to sign-off the opening of the paper. Firstly these students are not disinterested parties, assuming malice, they would want this information. Secondly, these student have no training on the proper procedure. If the head of your exam asks you to sign something so the paper can be passed out, you’ll sign it. I know I signed off an exam (only 2 of us sat the paper) so I didn’t realise that I was signing a procedural document at the time.
In short, the current “the procedures have been followed” process have absolutely no purpose. Insisting that a teacher or someone equally fire-able by the Department sign off would at least make the checks viable.
So is this going to happen again?
Yes. You see, human error is likely. The consequences differ widely every time, in this case a lot of inconvenience for all the students this year. Next year, it could be something small.
Annoying, yes, but stuff happens all the time. Next ear we will all year about the steps taken to avoid this from happening again. Or at least, the steps to make if less likely.
And the odd on winning the lotto are?