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Reinventing the wheel?

Matthew D. Farley

Reinventing the wheel?

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“A number of students find the system unresponsive to their needs . . . . Such students are easy prey for mal-adaptive and other anti-social behaviour.” – Education Sector Plan, Ministry of Education.
First let me congratulate those students who will be entering secondary schools, having completed their primary education. As they transition, we all wish them success and it is our hope that the experience will enable them to find their niche and the avenue through which they will make their contribution to our society.
Every year, there is great anticipation as the results are awaited. Minister of Education and Human Resource Development Ronald Jones made several important pronouncements in his Press conference.
The most important was that 722 students or about 18.5 per cent scored below 30 per cent on the mathematics paper. In 2011 the figure was 19.4 per cent. In addition, he said 217 students were not allocated to any of the 22 secondary schools. This means that 3 753 or 94.5 per cent have been allocated to a secondary school. It was interesting to note that no student chose a bursary.
On the positive side, the minister noted that there was some improvement in the performance of the boys and a notable increase in the number of students scoring between 30 and 69, as well as those scoring between 70 and 100 per cent.
The minister, who is a trained educator, in speaking about the possible reasons for the number of students scoring below 30 per cent, promised to source the necessary funds to assiduously address the problem. Among his speculations were health and psychological issues, learning deficiencies including dyslexia, and visual problems.
While Mr Jones must be lauded for the kind of analysis he brings to the results every year, we must be reminded that there is no examination that has been assessed, analyzed, scrutinized and evaluated to the extent the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (BSSEE) has been. Minister after minister in both administrations has conceded and accepted that the exam is flawed and has documented the adverse impact it continues to have on how secondary schools, in particular, are perceived.
In the Education Sector Plan 1993-2000, published in August 1993, the ministry itself acknowledges (Page 24): “There is a growing recognition that the Barbados Secondary [Schools] Entrance Examination . . . exerts adverse effects on curriculum, on instruction, pupil achievement and ultimately on the quality of education.” In relation to secondary education, the document notes: “This situation gives rise to the public perception that there are prestigious and non-prestigious secondary schools.”
It speaks as well to the over-emphasis on academics to the exclusion of technical and vocational education and the extent to which students, who opt for the latter, are stigmatized by their peers.
If one argues that the 1993 document is almost two decades old, it is interesting to examine what the recently published report of the National Advisory Commission on Education (NACE) says about the examination. The report, which purports to capture the views of Barbadians from several town hall meetings and national consultations, makes a recommendation in which it is acknowledged that the BSSEE is “a sorting and labelling mechanism” (Page 188). The White Paper On Education had also addressed several flaws inherent in this examination as a mode of transferring students to secondary schools.
What I am suggesting to Mr Jones, who says he is a “glutton for qualitative improvement”, is that there may not be the need to do any comprehensive assessment, especially since there is a paucity of resources. Yes, Minister, there is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel.
In terms of the performance of students in the  Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate general proficiency examinations, it was more than coincidental that Miss Susan Giles, who is a senior officer of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), recently lamented another statistic which was shared with the public. In a news items carried on Starcom Network, she noted that “over 30 per cent of the students taking the CXC examinations are registering zero passes”.
I also want to refer Miss Giles and her colleagues to the same 1993 Education Sector Plan which categorically states: “On average less than 20 per cent of the students taking CXC general proficiency examinations pass four or more subjects at one sitting.” “This seems to suggest the standard is beyond the reach of a significant number of secondary students and . . . many of these students leave school without any certification.” (Page 25)
In conclusion, therefore, there is absolutely no need for the Minister of Education or the CXC to reinvent the wheel. A perusal of the various reports and documentation would reveal that it is already recognized and acknowledged that the BSSEE is severely flawed on many fronts. Even though the NACE would want us to believe that it is still the fairest, it fails to indicate with what other approach it is being compared.
At the CXC level, it seems reasonable to conclude that those who fail to register any passes are not the ones targeted by the general proficiency examinations. We may continue to ignore these facts and stats but the underlying problems will continue to haunt us and we may be looking for solutions which are already there right under our noses.
• Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and social commentator. Email [email protected]