The State Examinations Commission has been tasked by Minister for Education Norma Foley to research the challenges and opportunities posed by artificial intelligence when assessing students for the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate exams.

While artificial intelligence (AI) poses little threat to traditional written exams, there are deeper concerns among teachers that plans to introduce more school-based assessments, marked by teachers, could be undermined by the new technology.

Teacher-based continual assessment forms a central part of new Leaving Cert reform plans, under which 40 per cent of students’ marks would be awarded by their teacher for project, oral or practical work completed at home or in school.

In a letter to the State Examinations Commission, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Norma Foley notes that recent advancements in generative artificial intelligence have presented “very significant challenges and considerations” and require further research.

The move may affect the timescale for Leaving Cert reform which, under existing plans, would likely take several years to deliver.

AI tools such as ChatGPT can write nuanced essays, poetry, generate code and translate languages within seconds in response to prompts from human users.

The new tool has sparked alarm on college campuses and prompted a shift towards fewer essays and more oral presentations in higher education assessment.

In relation to teacher-based assessment, Ms Foley said under the proposed changes the State Examinations Commission would remain “centrally involved in the design and moderation of the new teacher-based assessment methods” in order to “maintain integrity and trust in the system”.

“However, I am conscious that while the announcement of these reforms was informed by extensive research, this precedes the more recent accelerated evolution and growth in artificial intelligence and also the emerging learnings from the Junior Cycle reform process and relevant strategies in the digital area,” she wrote.

“As such, I am writing to request that research would be commissioned on the potential role and impact of generative artificial intelligence in teacher-based assessment in particular.

“Such research should, I believe, consider both the unique opportunities and challenges associated with artificial intelligence in school-based assessment and to consider how these can be maximised and mitigated respectively”.

In a subsequent interview to clarify the contents of the letter, Ms Foley said research on AI relates only to future Leaving Cert reform plans.

She said she has been assured that there are safeguards in place to protect the integrity of project work undertaken by students for existing subjects.

“It is very much looking to the future, because the reforms we are seeking are not in the short term; they’re long-term reforms,” Ms Foley said.

“They’re changing the face of how senior cycle is delivered; they’re changing the face of how students will experience exams and the wider experience of senior cycle. That, in itself, is an enormous body of work and it must be a proofed body of work.”

Ms Foley acknowledged that the research may affect aspects of existing Leaving Cert reform plans.

“To be honest, when we made the [reform plan] announcement in 2022, no one was talking about ChatGPT. I don’t think it was on anyone’s radar,” she said.

“We’re now in a very different space. Therefore, we have to do this body of work, it will have to be quite a forensic body of work and that, in itself, will have a timeline impact going forward.”

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