The abrupt national shutdowns owing to the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered what we can now describe as an idyllic existence. Since March, the education system has been – to quote one public service announcement – left ‘catspraddled’, as have we all.
At the beginning of the year, teachers, students and parents were operating on a schedule that had been fixed in stone: three school terms, Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. We know the drill: Hilary is devoted to sports, with exams in Trinity, from promotion exams to the Criterion Reference Test, Common Entrance, CSEC and CAPE.
With the advent of COVID-19, schools closed down. Students who spent the last two years of their lives preparing for exams were left in uncertainty about when they would get to write the exams. Older students wondered not only when they would sit their exams, but what types of papers they would be set and how these would be graded.
On CBC Television’s, “The People’s Business”, on Sunday, Deputy Chief Education Officer Roderick Rudder, the national registrar for the Caribbean Examinations Council, outlined how the regional examinations body came to the decision to grade CSEC students on their School-Based Assessments and to have them do only a multiple-choice exam as opposed to both multiple-choice and written papers.
Rudder said: “At the onset of the impact of COVID-19, the CXC undertook a psychometric analysis of all its papers, to determine the extent to which it would be able to offer a valid grade to students with a modified approach. It focuses on School-Based Assessments (SBAs) and alternatives to SBAs for private candidates, and the common paper is multiple choice, so CXC can assess students across the board and be able to guarantee a valid grade moving forward from this year’s exams.”
But Rudder did not address what is happening with the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE), which to our knowledge do not have a multiple-choice element. Will the students be allowed to go to their examination centres on the appointed dates to write these exams as normal? We would suggest that in the future, CXC considers putting its written papers online, because as some commentators have suggested, written papers are a better measure of a student’s aptitude and command of basic mathematical, writing and cognitive skills than the somewhat ‘guesswork’ nature of multiple-choice exams.
Amid all the back and forth between the teachers’ unions, the Caribbean Examinations Council and the Ministry of Education, there is one group that has been left out. The ministry, which has responsibility for technical and vocational training, has been silent about how students pursuing Caribbean Vocational Qualifications (CVQs) in disciplines like cosmetology, auto mechanics, carpentry and electronics are being handled.
These students can be found in our secondary schools, the Barbados Community College, the Samuel Jackman Prescod Institute of Technology, the Barbados Vocational Training Board and several smaller TVET institutions across the island.
We cannot assume that these exams have been shelved for the time being. Like all courses of study, there is a classroom and textbook element to these disciplines, but a student cannot build a cabinet online. Even if they come up with the designs using a CAD programme, and draw out the individual components of the furniture so they can be printed on a 3D printer, said cabinet still needs to be physically assembled.
If the schedule has been revised for the CVQs as well, those students, some of whom are adults balancing their studies with work and family responsibilities, need to know what is happening, especially those who may have lost their jobs and for whom these disciplines may determine their future.
Ideally, based on the exam schedule, once that is finalised, the Barbados Community College or the SJPI can be used as a central facility for these students to do their practicals. An online exam, with both multiple-choice and essay-type answer elements, may be used to address the classroom aspect of the courses.
Exams already cause lots of anxiety among students as well as their parents, who would have invested lots of time, energy and money into their efforts. We would appreciate some measure of clarity from the relevant authorities as to when some of that anxiety will be relieved.
Once again, the pandemic has brought to the fore what happens when contingency plans are either haphazard or non-existent. As acting Chief Education Officer Joy Adamson said: “We may not have a COVID-20, but just in case we have a COVID-21, let us use the lessons we have learned now to manage it better.”
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