GSAT preference and placement: Are all schools equal? (Part 2)
Verona Antoine-Smith, GUEST COLUMNIST
There are long-term plans to replace the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), which was introduced in 1999. Although in the embryonic stage, the main concerns are the assessment and placement processes. The decade-old Task Force Report (2004) recommended changing the assessment from one of knowledge and recall to skills orientation and application. Consequently, the phased implementation includes lightening the content-loaded curriculum, then complementing it with a school-based project as a percentage of the overall assessment.
Regarding placement, partial zoning will be added as a prerequisite. Currently, placement is based on six criteria, which can be summarised in two words, performance and preference. Undoubtedly, the most decisive factor is student performance, as this must meet the school's entry-score requirement; second is individual performance relative to the cohort's; third, how school choices were ranked; fourth, the number of students applying for each of those schools; fifth, the number of students each school can accommodate; and sixth, gender.
If implemented, partial zoning could limit students' access to certain schools. Students will still have five choices: the first two being any school islandwide. However, the others must be selected from the Ministry of Education's (MOE) predetermined cluster of schools (zone) in which the student resides. Clearly, partial zoning will have its greatest impact on students whose performance is not competitive enough to land them in their top two preferred schools. So while not privileged to how zones will be defined, this change may actually exacerbate the placement issue.
Other GSAT Concerns
The MOE's mantra, 'Every child can learn. Every child must learn', is a very powerful and insightful one. Theoretically, it underscores the ministry's awareness of learning variability in children. However, the practice of automatic promotion suggests otherwise. Barring those who are steered towards A-STEP, every student that enters grade six has to sit GSAT and will be promoted to high school irrespective of performance. Certainly, age is a factor, but the practice assumes similar readiness among students and does not cater to exceptional ones.
Although the Common Entrance exam had its drawbacks, the three opportunities of sitting this placement test (grades four, five and six), must be seen as an advantage. It allowed those who were ready to advance to do so and provided vacant seats for others who needed greater preparation. On occasion, parents have absented their child from GSAT exams as they independently concluded that their child was not ready. This has angered principals because it created unexpected seating challenges for the upcoming grade six cohort. The MOE does not condone that practice. Consequently, plans are afoot to open diagnostic centres islandwide to facilitate mandatory assessment of every primary scholar prior to sitting the placement test.
High-performing GSAT students are placed in schools noted for high academic achievement, while those with average to low performances are filtered throughout the rest, some of which are lacking in basic resources. How can we reasonably expect them to achieve comparable results in external exams? Similarly, when high-performing GSAT students are placed in underequipped schools, how will they be sufficiently engaged and prepared with obvious deficiencies? Now if all secondary schools were adequately equipped, placement would not be so big an issue.
Preferred School of Placement
Beyond the traditional and non-traditional brands, schools have diversified programmes of study, different points of exit, and, most important, different entry-score requirements. Students may choose any school in any order of preference. With more than 40,000 competing for placement in 204 schools, which ones are in greatest demand?
An MOE official defined the school of preferred choice as the school that is most frequently selected when all five options are considered. MOE data attested to the generally high demand for traditional schools and identified the single most preferred school of placement for girls and boys islandwide. For three consecutive years, 2011-2013, this was Wolmer's Girls and Kingston College, respectively.
MOE data also suggested that some schools were more likely to be selected as a first or second choice than others. Given that most parents aspire to get one of their first two choices, a modified approach was used to better identify the most preferred schools. Only first and second choices were summed. The findings indicated that, for the period 2011-2013, Wolmer's Girls was most frequently selected as the first two choices, corresponding with Wolmer's Boys in 2011 and Kingston College in 2012 and 2013.
Using this same approach, for 2013, the top 10 preferred schools for girls were Wolmer's, Immaculate Conception, Montego Bay, St Andrew, Manchester, Mt Alvernia, St Jago, Ardenne, Glenmuir and Holy Childhood. For the boys: Kingston College, Calabar, Wolmer's, Jamaica College, Herbert Morrison Technical, Manchester, Cornwall College, Ardenne, St Jago and Munro College.
There is talk about increasing the number of secondary-school places. However, the Government must be mindful of the 1957 reforms where several schools were constructed to provide greater access to post-primary education, but failed to appease parents' demand for the type of education that "for historical reasons had become most valued and the object of social demand" (Miller, 1990).
GSAT results are out and some students were not placed at their preferred school. Do not despair, Thomas Edison once said, "... a single sheet of paper can't decide my future." Students, don't let a placement test determine your fate or allow the walls of a school to define you. Whatever your goals in life, choose to excel, persevere and follow that dream. Remember, every child can learn ... and you must!
The disparities among secondary-school types add credence to parents' perceptions about them. The MOE must hasten to bridge those gaps and create real equal opportunities for students, concurrent with the proposed changes to their placement test. Rebranding as 'high school' does not count. If these inconsistencies are not addressed, all the revisions to GSAT or its 2017 successor will not resolve the placement issue. All secondary schools are not equal, but we yearn for them to be and not to seem.