Burchell Whiteman disappointed with high-stakes, stressful GSAT ... Reflects on 17 years of the exam
The educator who led the Ministry of Education when the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) was first administered in 1999 says that he is disappointed that it has become a high-stakes test that has resulted in a high level of stress for students through extra classes and intense pressure to do well.
Thousands of children will sit the examination over a two-day period beginning on Thursday to gain places in high schools. But while Burchell Whiteman describes GSAT as a well-designed examination, he is not entirely happy with some aspects of the examination. He also regrets that there still continues to be a limited number of top-quality high school spaces for students who do well.
"We are now, almost 20 years on, coming to the view that the entire system is showing up deficits in critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, and people being able to reason, so I am not about to bash the system before or since Common Entrance. But I believe that as a community, we have to look at how we can get the best out of what we have so that students can begin to enjoy learning that I think is fundamental," he said.
If children are to the enjoy learning of which Whiteman speaks, it may not be through the GSAT experience, for this examination is on its way out. In fact, GSAT 2016 is the penultimate examination before the nation transitions into the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) in 2018.
The education ministry announced last year that it was targeting the 2017-18 academic year for rollout of the PEP to replace GSAT. It said that the aim was to assist in alleviating existing challenges associated with long distances traversed by secondary students to get to school by introducing zoning to place youngsters in institutions close to their homes.
Whiteman remembers vividly the buzz of activity that permeated the National Heroes Circle offices of the education ministry when it came around to March, the month during which the GSAT is administered.
"In those early years, it was, I wouldn't say frenetic, but it took a lot of energy to make sure we got it right, particularly the marking and the release of the results. I remember that on more than one occasion, it was quite traumatic," he reminisced as he spoke with The Gleaner.
It was under Whiteman's leadership as minister of education that the Common Entrance, as the qualifying examination for admission to high school, gave way to GSAT.
According to Whiteman, part of the rationale for introducing GSAT was the need for curriculum-based assessment rather than the predictive testing associated with Common Entrance.
It was believed by policymakers that some important learning criteria were not being met, and as such, steps were taken to reshape testing at the primary level to reflect what was in the primary school curriculum.
While GSAT maintained the multiple choice format, the range of tests was broadened, with the addition of social studies and communication tasks.
"I welcomed the introduction of the communication tasks because I distinctly remember the year before the test was initiated across the country, in the pilot test that they ran alongside the Common Entrance test, one student got a very high mark in the Common Entrance but got an appalling score on the communication tasks, which, to me, made the case for it to form part of GSAT," Whiteman said.