As primary school class four students, fresh from the Christmas holiday break, prepare for the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination, commonly known as the Common Entrance Examination, in May, comes a loud call for the abolition of the ’11-plus’ – the old ‘screening test’.
Professor of Education and Director of the School of Education at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Professor Joel Warrican, minced no words as he branded the examination as elitist and racist, listing it among the useless practices that paralyze the education system here and throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.
“I think it should be disbanded, totally disbanded. I support an assessment system because it is not just about disbanding an exam. You can use an assessment to get the relevant information, the necessary information about a child so that you can help them. So, when the student goes to secondary school, it should not just be a transfer from primary to secondary school,” he told educators and administrators at the Eastern Caribbean Joint Board of Teacher Education’s annual meeting.
Professor Warrican’s failing grade for the Common Entrance Exam joins heaps of similar indictments against the “screaming test”, as many of its critics deem it with derision.
Just as strong as the arguments of opponents is the urging of proponents to maintain the test. But in a changing world and workplace, a modern education system with a stated mission to develop well-rounded first class citizens for any area must re-invent itself.
Education has been at the foundation of the success of Barbadian society and that’s even more reason to grade, frankly and soberly, the first significant matriculation for the nation’s students as they continue their march to full development.
The Common Entrance Exam, though it allocates our children from primary to secondary school, also creates anomalies that this small society can do without.
We have developed an almost fanatical obsession with ensuring that all our children get into the so-called “top four” – Harrison College, Queen’s College, The St Michael School and Combermere.
We have even started to grade primary schools based on how many “top performers” they produce. And let us not forget the annual comparison of performance between public and private schools.
Students who don’t make the “grade”, are made to feel like failures and are consigned to newer secondary schools to follow the same curriculum and take the same Caribbean Examination Council’s exams to gain certification to enter the world of work or pursue tertiary education.
Judging children on the results of a one-off examination that is only based on English and Mathematics, is neither fair nor smart, particularly since primary school students are taught Social Studies, Religious Studies, Science, Computer Studies and even a foreign language these days.
And this nonsense of a “good school” or “bad school”, a top school or a low school must be banished. It is not the school, but what children do when they enter their school that matters. All teachers are qualified, the syllabus per subject is the same and children supported by their parents must be taught that success comes by determination, sacrifice and hard work.
Furthermore, success does not solely mean gaining grade one certificates in academics, but those students with vocational and creative skills must be given the opportunity to unleash their potential.
So bring us possible alternatives.
We believe Dr Warrican’s call for a continuous assessment system has some merit.
Continuous assessment is an important pillar of an effective education system.
Assessment should begin at the primary schools level perhaps from Class One. Such a system could involve diagnostic tests which would help teachers to better understand their students’ strengths and weaknesses and implement corrective action working with parents.
An assessment system would also allow teachers to better monitor the impact of their lessons and teaching styles.
This is exactly how the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment (CPEA), developed by the CXC, is conducted: continuous assessment over a two-year period. It was introduced in the OECS some years ago but sadly, was dismissed out-of-hand, sight unseen by our then education minister.
The CPEA was ignored even as both teachers and students in the Eastern Caribbean raved about a system that not only eased significant stress on your minds but got children to look forward to coming to school.
But then as now, it really is more a question of our will power.
Only time will tell whether the Common Entrance debate will be resumed as students begin their ritual preparations for the test in 2020.