SOME 50,000 Jamaican children sat the Grade Four Literacy Test last week. After four years of primary education, the ability of 10-year-olds to recognise words; read and understand simple stories, factual texts, directions, lists and tables; and to write simple stories, reports and letters is tested.
Only 57 per cent of grade four students tested last year had achieved the mastery level in all three sections of the test. The other 43 per cent of students fell into the other two performance categories of near-mastery and non-mastery, which are merely euphemistic labels of the fact that these students have failed to achieve a satisfactory level of literacy. What will make the results any better this year? This is Child's Month. One of the best gifts we, the nation and the family, can give to our children is a good education. Often it is the only real legacy that we can bequeath.
The primary business of the primary school has to be the teaching of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. After four of the six primary years, too many Jamaican children have low literacy and numeracy skills. Without special intervention, it becomes increasingly difficult to acquire these foundation skills as they journey further through the school system.
The burden of low literacy and numeracy skills carried from grade to grade under the system of automatic promotion irrespective of competence is the biggest contributor to the fact that 75 per cent of secondary school leavers have no formal academic qualifications as examination passes. This massive waste at both the national and individual levels cannot continue.
Intervention at the earliest stages is both the cheapest and the most effective means of addressing the problem. Teaching for literacy is not rocket science and does not require that kind of equipment. Minister of Education Maxine Henry-Wilson in her contribution to the Sectoral Debate made a great deal of the remedial summer literacy programme as a strategy for dealing with the problem of non-mastery after it has occurred.
Obviously, such short-term methods are necessary; but they should really be short-term and not become permanent features in a failing system. The strategies she outlined for early intervention should be pursued with urgency and vigour.
The minister reported on the successes of the New Horizon Project piloted in 72 primary schools over the last seven years and, as usual, financed by a donor agency, USAID. As Dr. Omar Davies, the aspiring Prime Minister who has vowed to eradicate illiteracy within five years of being elected, gingerly points out from time to time, the national investment in education, which has added significantly to the debt burden, must reasonably be expected to make economic returns which justify the outlay and pay back in economic growth for the outlay. Eradicating illiteracy is no impossible task or even a long-term matter. Cuba did it within five years of the Revolution. In the region, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago boast near 100 per cent literacy levels and go on, with virtually every other CARICOM territory, to achieve better CXC results.
TEACHING OF LITERACY
New Horizon pulled up one school with a consistently low literacy level to a 96 per cent pass rate in the Grade Four Literacy Test last year. The project has ended. The business now is to replicate its success in over 700 other primary schools. The technology used computers, overhead projectors, digital cameras, TV and video is going to be hard to finance for all schools and are not fundamental to the teaching of literacy. More important than high technology was the breakfast programme. So many projects have died when the donor withdraws.
The Grade Four Literacy Test joins other key tests in the National Assessment Programme (NAP) in exposing the weaknesses of the country's education system. The results of this year's Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) will soon be out, and there is a Grade One Learning Readiness Diagnostic Test.
Unfortunately, the achievement component of the GSAT has been almost completely overshadowed by its secondary placement function. After seven years of running it, the minister says it's time to review the GSAT. There is an abundance of NAP data with which to review the whole primary education system and on which to make policy decisions to get the system to perform better and to deliver more.
But it has been with great reluctance and under some public pressure that the Ministry of Education has released some of the statistical data from these tests which allows for general system assessment. The data is not only about students, but provides feedback on the performance of schools and teachers and on education policy.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist.