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by S. Joel Warrican
I forbore to add my voice to the debates and controversies relating to the situation surrounding the writing of the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations and the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE) administered by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). Having read the recent news story that reported the call from UNICEF, I feel compelled to write.
In the news story, UNICEF reportedly called on Ministries of Education in the region to appeal to CXC to adopt measures suggested by Teachers’ Unions to alleviate the anxieties and disadvantages that students are likely to suffer if the path set out by the Council is followed.
I appreciate the plea from UNICEF and recognize that it is coming from a place of concern for the children in the region whose schooling has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some cases, a traumatic volcanic eruption.
In the absence of any other voice outside of the teaching profession, it is laudable that UNICEF should take up this cause. I would, however, like to suggest that their appeal may be going to the wrong ears.
While persons point to the plight of the secondary-school age students and the perceived injustice being dealt to them by CXC, I believe that they are overlooking another injustice wrought by others in a different quarter. And unfortunately, it is to this quarter that UNICEF is appealing.
Here I am speaking of the injustice perpetuated by said Ministries of Education that, in the face of all the trauma, have still found a way of ensuring that primary school students write the common entrance examination (known by different names in different countries in the region, but the same beast!).
Ministries of Education are finding it convenient and safe for these children to return to in-person classes in schools in this, the third term of the academic year, so that they can be “adequately” prepared to write this “screening” test.
Think about it! Most, if not all of the countries in the English-speaking Caribbean report that they have in place, some form of continuous assessment in the primary schools.
Yet, the common entrance examination remains the unshakeable and relied-on means of transferring students from primary to secondary education. In this day of universal secondary education in the region, some will still make the argument that using this examination is the fairest way of making the transfer.
I wish to contend that rather than being “fair”, it is unjust, as it perpetuates a system of elitism that ensures that students from certain backgrounds are awarded places in prestigious schools while the others are farmed out to schools that are underresourced and under-valued.
On what moral grounds will Ministries of Education that uphold this inequitable system, appeal to CXC? Am I the only one seeing the hypocrisy in such an appeal, should it be tendered? And think about it? Can secondary schools, especially those that boast of having a system of continuous assessment, justify the need to have students return to the classroom so that they can have some face-to-face schooling to prepare them for promotion examinations? What is evident across the entire system of education in the region is that examinations rule! Even in “normal” times, this system of high stakes examinations plays havoc with the mental and psychological state of students.
I wish to submit that in these unprecedented times of COVID-19 and volcanic eruptions, the toll that King Examinations is taking on students is even higher.
The fact that the examination culture is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the region’s people, has become a trump card for CXC, Ministries of Education and to a lesser extent, schools. Whenever examinations are “threatened”, the notion of “fairest way” is invoked and the support of the masses tends to be thrown behind the perpetuation of the reign of the King.
In these times of trauma for students, I am particularly disappointed at the lack of leadership from the CXC in finding creative ways of certifying students who are leaving compulsory education.
As an organization that boasts of expertise in assessment, it is distressing that CXC cannot find innovative approaches to assess students.
Indeed, when an attempt at this was made in 2020, the outcome was disastrous, causing great anxiety among students, their parents and their teachers.
What made the situation even worse, was CXC’s attempt to defend their indefensible actions in a manner that many felt was arrogant, disrespectful and uncaring. It is unfortunate that this same attitude is discernible in CXC’s behaviour this year.
I do not want to tell CXC what to do, but I would suggest that they step out of the seemingly inflexible way in which they are approaching the administration of the CSEC and CAPE assessments and develop friendlier models of certifying students; models that while maintaining the integrity of the certification that they provide, are not so heavily dependent on examinations written en masse by students, come hell or high water.
I would also like to suggest that Ministries of Education hold CXC more accountable for providing a variety of options that allows for greater flexibility for administering its assessments.
Of course, to do this without hypocrisy or moral dilemma, Ministries of Education should also take stock of their own models of assessing students at the end of their primary school education.
S. Joel Warrican is a Professor of Education and Director of the School of Education at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill.