Editorial | SBA crisis demands attention
Among everything else Fayval Williams has to do to shore up Jamaica’s already wobbly education system in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, she must add as an urgent priority a massive effort to (re)acquaint teachers with the Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC) grading system and of the seriousness of their obligation to the students for whom they prepare these tests. There ought not to be attempts at short-circuiting or ‘gaming’ the system to help students, being groomed and practised for lifelong experiences, to ‘pass’ the exams.
Our concern here is that while there are many issues for CXC to fix after the controversies over this year’s secondary certificate and higher level exams, it is clear – if the findings of an independent review committee is credible – that across the Caribbean teachers were, for years, gratuitously inflating grades for school-based assessments (SBAs), which a more aggressive moderation of scores deflated, taking with it the expectations of students. We are concerned, also, about hints of cheating, in that some students may have been prepared with ‘leaked’ papers.
No specific territory or group of teachers was identified for the grading bubbles, or other potential infractions. But with Jamaica each summer sending up over 60,000 students, or nearly half of the entrants, for CXC’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams, and around 54 per cent of the more than 30,000 who do its advance proficiency (CAPE) test, it is not unreasonable to conclude that our schools and teachers may have been part of these efforts at gaining an advantage, or establishing cushions for students.
Normally, there are three elements to the CXC exams: a written multiple choice test, an essay paper and the SBAs – all of which were weighted to help provide final scores and grades. This year, because of the disruption to schools caused by COVID-19, a delay of the tests, and the need for exams to be conducted in circumstances that lessened the possibility for the spread of the virus, CXC opted to forgo essay papers. Even though outcomes would be based on two papers, the credibility of the exam would be ensured and students’ grades would be equivalent to those of previous years.
One of the methods by which CXC would ensure grade equivalency was by vastly expanding the moderation of SBAs, or the review, or regression analysis, of the marks teachers award to students for school-based assessments, those given by CXC moderators, to ensure they fall within the tolerance established by the examination body. The upshot of this more robust review: generally lower marks for SBAs than in previous years.
The CXC, according to the review committee, chaired by former University of the West Indies linguistic professor, Hazel Simmons-McDonald, noted several reasons for this development, including “the lack of thoroughness and vigilance by teachers while marking SBAs, leading to the award of full marks in some instances for areas that students did not even attempt”.
Further, apart from shortcomings in the quality of some SBA relative to the requirements of the syllabus, there was often an assumption – misguided, the report said – “that the CXC moderators would be inclined to reduce teachers’ marks and that some element of mark inflation would protect their students from falling below their expected grade”.
Despite the downward revision on SBA marks, there was, nonetheless, an uptick in this year’s overall performance in the exams. That was largely because students did particularly well on the multiple choice paper, although many students thought they should have done better, given their performance on the multiple choice paper and the grades they anticipated on their SBAs. We, though, are chagrined by what Professor Simmons-McDonald’s committee discovered with respect to the multiple choice paper. One was the seeming “availability of examples of Paper 1 (multiple choice) in the public domain”.
“...The team is anxious that security issues surrounding the Paper 1 be thoroughly examined with the view of obviating leaks in the future and to ensure that increased dependence on electronic examinations will result in the implementation of impregnable ‘firewalls’ that will provide the protection of examination papers administered and stored electronically for use in the future,” the report said.
Professor Simmons-McDonald’s report highlights several technical shortcomings in the conduct of this year’s exams, including CXC’s failure to adequately communicate with stakeholders about adjustment to the grading system, which caused large numbers of students, parents, teachers and schools across the Caribbean to have misgivings about the results. While we accept all the report has said, and urge CXC to follow through on the recommendation, nothing in Professor Simmons-McDonald’s report is more fundamental to the integrity of the exams, and the long-term quality assurance of education in the Caribbean, than the two issues we have highlighted.
The overuse of recycled questions, leaks and potential cheating, as may have been the case in the multiple choice paper, however, is a relatively easy fix. Technological and other loopholes can be readily closed.
The problems with the preparation for, and the marking of their SBAs appear systemic, and warranting deeper intervention. We therefore support the report’s call on CXC for “strategic training workshops for teachers to arrest the difference between teacher-awarded scores and CXC-moderated scores”. Jamaica, however, mustn’t wait on CXC to act, even if there may be a presumption that the SBA issue isn’t a big problem here and that there are too many other priorities in the midst of the pandemic. The next CXC exams are critical to the next phase of education and an important certification of knowledge. We remind, too, that the next sittings are around the corner. This issue shouldn’t be allowed to exist next year. Education Minister Williams must act now.