Artificial intelligence (AI) can bring both benefits and challenges for State exams, the Education Minister has said as she shelved teacher-based assessments due to the potential impacts of the new technology.
The State Examinations Commission (SEC) is to assess the potential impact of generative AI on work submitted by secondary school students that their teachers would then assess.
Minister for Education Norma Foley denied that the plan was shelved because it was opposed by teacher unions, who had said teacher assessments would affect the relationship they have with their students.
Ms Foley said the decision was made because she was particularly concerned about the evolution and growth in generative AI, adding that both the opportunities and challenges it offered needed to be assessed.
She said the choice was between delaying all reforms planned for the Leaving Certificate or to delay the teacher assessments and “accelerate” the rest of the plans.
Ms Foley said that 120,000 students who are now in second and third year will be the first cohort of students to study the reformed Leaving Certificate when they go into fifth year in September 2025.
She said the reform will initially involve nine subjects, including biology, physics, chemistry and business.
Two new subjects – drama, film and theatre studies, and climate action and sustainable development – have also been introduced.
Ms Foley said it was not “good enough” that some aspects of the curriculum being taught were 20 years old.
“If our students don’t have the skills and the ability to meet the challenges of the world in which they live in in the 21st century, well then we’re doing them a disservice. And indeed, we’re doing further education, higher education, apprenticeship, the world of work, we’re doing all of it a disservice,” she said at the National Ploughing Championships.
The minister also said it was “positive” that at least 40% of the Leaving Cert would be completed by students before they sit the final exam in June.
“Students have consistently made a plea around the enormous pressure they’re under having to sit one exam, and everything depending on one day,” she said.
“And also the assessment will be very much to their skills and their talents. So it will be how to conduct an experiment, how to create an animation, whatever the SEC deem to be appropriate. And we will in time pursue the other element.”
Last year, Ms Foley said all subjects would have a teacher-based assessment component with a weighting of 40% of the total marks available.
Speaking on Wednesday, she said that AI such as ChatGPT “was not part of our world and we have to acknowledge that it is there”.
Ms Foley added: “We in education are grappling with it in a similar fashion that other sectors are grappling with it also.
“I’ve tasked the State Examinations Commission to undertake significant research in this area so that we can be better informed as to how we can harness AI because there will be benefits to it, but also armour ourselves against what will be the challenges.
“And until we have that study completed, the elements of teacher-based assessment… the element (relating to) the final exams, that will be put to one side until that body of work is completed.”
She said that school staff “need to be supported to deal with this new issue of AI, they need to feel that they have a competency and they need to feel that they know what they need to know”.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) welcomed the announcement.
General secretary Michael Gillespie said: “Our clear and unambiguous position has always been that State certification is key to all developments and must be retained.
“TUI members have always been fundamentally opposed to assessing their own students for State certificate purposes and therefore external assessment and State certification – which retain significant public trust – are essential for all written examinations and all additional components of assessment.”