I have often felt when dealing with a 1st year class (particularly in maths) that, by Christmas, I could predict their leaving cert grades with some precision, and I know that many other teachers feel the same. I never enjoyed this feeling and and always tried to fight against it. It can add an air of futility to what we do as teachers, and could obviously lead you (or me) to prejudge a student to their detriment. But the fact that this feeling was often backed up by further experience, with very strong students in first year often ending up as very strong students at leaving cert, made it hard to ignore.
But I was also aware that focussing on a few students at the extreme could well be misleading. So, I decided to look back at exam results over a period of years in my school to see if there is a measurable correlation between those early school results and their eventual leaving cert results To do this, I looked at the Leaving Cert results in Maths for the class of 2022 (a group of about 100 students) and compared then to their first year results in those subjects.
What did I find? For maths, there is a correlation. As the graph shows, it's not the strongest but the correlation coefficient comes out 0.71, which is obviously high enough to be significant.
But then, I decided to go into a little more detail, and check the extent to which that correlation is affected by the strongest and the weakest of students.
In Maths, the correlation falls to 0.37 when we exclude the 20 strongest and 20 weakest students. Which I think implies that for the majority of students who are not at either extreme, performance in 1st year maths exams is a very poor predictor of their score in leaving cert maths
By another measure, the highest scoring 20 students in 1st year averaged 93%. The same cohort averaged 91%, taken on mid-interval values, in the leaving cert. There was a similar pattern for the weaker students. The trend seems clear: For most students, performance varies a great deal over the years, but strong students tend to stay strong, and the weak students tend to stay weak.
But even accepting that, it is important to note the exceptions. When I examined the results of the strongest and weakest in detail, I found that amongst the 20 weakest students in 1st year maths, two went on to do higher level maths: one got a H3 and one got a H2. And amongst the higher performers from 1st year, one fell to H5 in the leaving cert having scored 91% in 1st year.
I carried out a similar analysis for English, and I checked for correlations between Leaving Cert grades and school exam results using results from 1st, 2nd and 5th year - as well the sigma and micra tests that most students complete in 6th class. There were various compromises I felt I had to make in my analysis to make valid comparisons and if anybody is interested in the whole report, I would be happy to share: just email me via this site. But the summary of my results was this:
For a majority of students, results in 1st and 2nd year are a very poor predictor of their eventual leaving cert grade.
5th year results are a better indicator of 6th year results, but the correlation remains weaker than I would have initially expected.
It is true that for stronger and weaker students, the correlations are stronger. Students who do well in the leaving cert tend to have been high performers throughout their time in secondary school, and those who struggle in 1st year are likely to achieve lower leaving cert grades
But it is important to remember that even in the stronger and weaker groups there are exceptions: a small number who struggle in first year go on to achieve high grades in the leaving cert – and some of those who do very well in 1st year do not ultimately perform strongly in the leaving cert.
The Sigma test in 6th class correlates very weakly with student’s eventual performance in L Cert maths. And there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful correlation between the Micra test and a student’s eventual performance in English. (it is important to note that those tests do not set out to predict leaving cert grades, so this does not question their validity, It might be useful, though, if we as teachers let anxious parents know that when they try to make sense of those measurements.)
So to answer my own question from the title here: Is leaving cert performance determined by Christmas in 1st year? Definitely not. It's not even close.
Some times it's nice to have your prejudices destroyed.