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TEST CASE: Stephen wrote about his experience taking the leaving cert for the Irish Independent Newspaper. "I'm a bit worried about it," he says of his performance on the math portion of the exam.

Ireland Stephen Mc Fadden, 18
Col?iste Cholmcille
Ballyshannon, Ireland

Family: Father, a police officer; mother, a bank worker; two brothers, 6 and 16.

School: Col?iste Cholmcille ("St. Columba") is a 666-student school, an average size school, for 12- to 18-year-olds, two miles from Stephen's home in Ballyshannon, a town of 3,000 in northwest Ireland. The school offers math to parents of first-year students. Secondary school runs roughly from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for 167 days from September to May.

Courses: Stephen took higher-level classes for Irish, English, math, German, history, physics and chemistry. He also took physical education, careers and religion, studied applied math on his own and completed the school's Leaving Cert Vocational Program (a linked course of work experience, fund-raising experience and other studies).

'Brutally Fair'

Talk about high-stakes testing. In Ireland, every day for more than two weeks in June, newspapers, radio and television were full of reports on that day's Leaving Certificate exams, the end-of-secondary school exams that will determine the futures of the 52,000 students who took them.

Each exam can take up to three hours. Each day's news reports carried teacher and student comments -- and those of one of Ireland's leading mathematicians in one case -- on whether an exam challenged students or left them in tears. The coverage gets specific, down to individual items on the test. "Outrageous," one teacher said of a particularly troublesome math question.

That instructor would get no argument from Stephen McFadden, 18, who chronicled his Leaving Cert exams for the Irish Independent newspaper. He wrote that during the first day of the two-part, higher- level math exam, which covers a range of mathematics from algebra to calculus, he saw his hopes of an A "swirling down, lower and lower, into the imaginary toilet that I saw before me."

Stephen's favorite subject is chemistry, and he hopes he scored well enough to attend the elite Edinburgh University in Scotland tuition free.

Everything hinges on how well students perform on the Leaving Cert, a series of exams at the end of secondary school.

Higher level math was one of nine Leaving Cert exams, seven of them higher level, that Stephen took. Most students take only seven. They can choose between higher level or ordinary. Three -- Irish, English and math -- are compulsory. "It's a fierce competition and a national competition," says Jimmy Keogh, principal at Col?iste Cholmcille. "Someone described our exam system as brutally fair. I thought it was a good description."

Ireland's education system, like the country's economy, has undergone exceptional change in a generation. Keogh, 45, says his parents, as was common in their generation, left formal education at 12 or 13. In the 1950s, less than 10% of Irish children went on to higher education. Now, two-thirds do.

Funding, curriculum and examination standards are set nationally, but each school is autonomously managed by its own board, composed of elected representatives of parents and teachers and often representatives of Catholic religious orders. Sixty percent of secondary schools are run by church-related organizations.

Irish parents select their child's school; half of the children don't attend the nearest school. Admission is nonselective at government-supported schools, but the wait list at desirable schools can be long. Secondary school begins at age 12 or 13 with three years of junior level studies, ending with the Junior Cert exams on nine to 11 subjects covered in the three years.

After three years of junior level, about half of the students take the great innovation in Irish education, the transition year. Not tied to any exams, the "TY" is designed to develop a person socially and personally and can include cycling to Irish sites, work experiences, "fun" courses such as oceanography, volunteering or foreign travel. "A wonderful year, a splendid year," says Susie Hall, former president of the nation's secondary school teachers union who is also a foreign languages teacher and a year head who's responsible for a group of students from the time they enter the school at age 12 or 13 to when they leave at age 18 or 19. Her school, Malahide Community School 10 miles north of Dublin, is huge by Irish standards, with 1,200 students.

The final two years of secondary school are built around the Leaving Cert exams. "The strength of the Irish system," Hall says, "is that it does give them a very, very broad education to a very high standard." Indeed, only 5% of students take an alternative continuous-assessment program, which is widely seen as for weaker students and those not interested in higher education. Interestingly, research shows about 20% of the student population isn't suited to the Leaving Cert regimen, but most choose to stay on the more rigorous track anyway to better prepare them for their future, says professor Sheelagh Drudy, head of the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at University College, Dublin.

Ireland does well in comparisons of student performance and satisfaction. The teaching profession still draws high-caliber students. Education is the second-highest item in the budget, but Ireland's education spending as a share of GDP isn't high compared to Europe overall. "I think the great thing about Irish education is the respect it holds in the national" mind, Keogh says.

The system, despite its strengths, has issues. One is immigration, especially in more urban areas, in a country that has been a nation of emigrants. Ireland also sees a need for more scientists. It only recently added science to the primary school curriculum.

The Leaving Cert gets its share of debate on whether the exams are given too much importance and whether they address the needs of all students and employers. Still, the consensus is that the exams are fair in a small country where connections might otherwise hold sway. "Now it doesn't matter whether your father and mother are doctors. What matters is your score on your Leaving Certificate," says Drudy.

Stephen is well aware of that. A clarinet player in two bands and a youth orchestra, who gave up piano in the crunch of preparing for the Leaving Cert, he feels he did well, but then there's math. "I'm a bit worried about it," he says. "Your life is based on how well you do on two and half weeks of exams in June after two years of study."