The dismal performance of students in the core subjects of mathematics and English in the 2012 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations is sparking fresh concerns among regional educators.
For Jamaica, passes in English plummeted from 63.9 per cent in 2011 to 46.2 per cent, while in mathematics, they dropped from an already low of 33.2 per cent in 2011 to an even more disappointing 31.7 per cent, prompting Education Minister Ronald Thwaites to express shock.
Mr Thwaites has also revealed that only 16 per cent of Jamaica's math teachers are competent, a statistic we expect him to provide further particulars on, including the criteria of assessment and whether there have been such evaluations in the past.
However, if an honest assessment is made of the results of the annual Grade Four Numeracy and Literacy tests, no one ought to be surprised that four years after these poor performers enter high school, they are unable to catch up and turn around their performance.
Educators need to take seriously the call by Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) President Paul Adams for intervention at the primary level. We welcome the declaration from Mr Thwaites that he plans to focus attention on this area.
Reports show Guyana is the only country that has seen improvements in these critical subject areas in schools, where a pilot project was launched earlier this year. The project aims at providing the necessary resources to schools to ensure passes in the regional exams. Maybe the rest of the Caribbean can learn something from the Guyana model.
But there has been overall decline in the number of students achieving grade one through to three in this year's exams, according to data provided by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). While individuals have accomplished spectacular results, the majority have not done well.
Educators have been making their own assessments as to why students are underperforming in these critical areas. According to Mr Adams, the results were a reflection of the "deficiencies that exist in the education system in terms of the facilities and the state of the students".
Meanwhile, Campion College principal Grace Baston believes the time has come for English to be taught as a second language.
Other commentators have blamed lack of parental support, poor socio-economic conditions and the absence of teaching materials as reasons for the continued underperformance of many high-school students. They all agree that this is a complex problem and requires a multidisciplinary approach.
The minister has said these results are unacceptable. Improving student performance is a national imperative because the country cannot progress with an undereducated workforce. Where will the human capital come from to provide the goods and services that are necessary to drive economic development?
The top brass of the JTA and its members will meet for their annual parley next week. The evidence suggests that teachers are more qualified than ever before, yet schools are turning out tens of thousands of underachieving students annually. The country expects that this JTA forum will lay bare the weaknesses in the education system and that serious attempts will be made to point to the way forward.
The conversation must include arriving at a framework to assist failing and underperforming schools to improve their output. This is critical if the country is to achieve the target of 60 per cent of students passing at least five subjects, including English and mathematics, by the year 2015.
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