By Grace-Camille Munroe
SINCE INDEPENDENCE, Jamaica has made significant progress in improving education. A recent situational analysis revealed near universal access, as evident in an enrolment rate of 98.9 per cent at the early-childhood level; 99.7 per cent at the primary level; 87 per cent net enrolment at lower secondary - grades seven to nine; an impressive student-survival rate to grade five of 98.8 per cent, and primary completion rates near 100 per cent at 98 per cent; education financing comparing favourably with developed countries; the development of standards to guide the delivery of education at early-childhood institutions, including the establishment of the Early Childhood Commission; a national standardised primary curriculum and textbooks provided free of cost at the primary level; a highly subsidised textbook programme; the establishment of agencies to enhance teacher professionalisation, increase school accountability, and strengthen school improvement; the availability of a revolving loan to support teacher upgrade; heightened participation of civil society; and an education transformation and modernisation programme currently under way. This list is not exhaustive.
Despite the impressive achievements and investment of resources, the issue of quality continues to challenge the system, resulting in marginal improvements in student outcomes at all levels of the system.
In this article, I will examine trends in student performance in the Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC) - administered by the Caribbean Examinations Council - from 2001-2011 in general proficiency English language and mathematics. The data are presented and analysed at three levels: 1) student participation rate by cohort - the number sitting at the national level and gender; 2) student performance rate by cohort - the number sitting at the national level and gender; and 3) students passing five or more subjects, including English language and mathematics, by gender. Following on this, I will present some proposals for improving student performance.
In 2009, Jamaica celebrated 30 years as a participating territory in the CSEC. The examination is a terminal examination which certifies students' competencies in 37 subjects across the English-speaking Caribbean. It is used for advancing students to tertiary-level study. Since the first administration of the CSEC in 1979, the examination has significantly increased its currency as a benchmark of a student's overall academic achievement, and by extension, a variable that influences the perception of an effective or ineffective school. Schools, therefore, invest heavily in CSEC preparation and results.
I. Student Participation in CSEC English Language and Mathematics 2001-2011
The CSEC results for the past decade - 2001-2011 - show mixed results. The data reveal that the number of students sitting English language and mathematics has increased marginally over the decade by 6,622 students in English language and 4,474 in mathematics. Moreover, when the number of students participating in the examinations is expressed as a proportion of the eligible cohort, the data show that less than 60 per cent of the cohort is sitting English language, and less than 50 per cent is sitting mathematics. Female students are more highly represented in both eligible cohorts and the number of students sitting CSEC English language and mathematics than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, male participation in both English language and mathematics showed a marginal increase, except for in 2011. The trend suggests that, without any intervention to increase male participation, the gender-participation gap will continue and is likely to widen.
In the final analysis, the data on students' progress and completion suggest inadequate levels of students, especially the disproportionate levels of males, sitting the two compulsory terminal examinations which are required for tertiary-level education. In four years, the education system is expected to attain 100 per cent of the eligible cohort sitting English language and mathematics; however, at this pace, this target will not be achieved. If these participation and performance trends persist, there will be an increase in the at-risk population which, in turn, will negatively affect the quality of the workforce, the level of productivity, and overall development.
Obviously, the status quo needs to be changed. Greater effort must be directed to improve student competencies in English language and mathematics.
II. Student Performance in English Language and Mathematics
The national pass rate in English language and mathematics also revealed mixed results characterised by much fluctuation. For the first half of the decade, English language recorded a steady decline; however, 2005 marked a sharp increase over the previous year, moving from 41 per cent to 61 per cent This was not sustained, however, declining to 55 per cent in 2008. From 2009 to 2011, student performance once again recorded an increase - 14 percentage points. Student performance in mathematics was similar; however, the pass rates were much lower. For the 10-year period, the pass rate never went over 45 per cent. The performance gap in the subject remained wide.
The trend analysis suggests that student performance in English language will continue to increase steadily; however, mathematics will plateau. The performance gap will also continue to be wide.
In examining students' pass rates as a proportion of the eligible cohort and the number sitting for the period, the data reveal that English language attained only a 30 per cent pass rate of the eligible cohort and a 56 per cent pass rate of those sitting. In mathematics, the numbers highlight that less than 20 per cent of the eligible cohort was passing and less than 40 per cent of those sitting.
When examined by sex, over the decade, female students have consistently outperformed the males in English language. For example, in 2011, the female pass rate was 74 per cent, compared to 39 per cent for males, and 69 per cent at the national level. However, in mathematics, the results showed that female students were relatively on par with males and the national pass rates. In 2011, the results were 40 per cent - females; 39 per cent - males; and 39 per cent - national pass rates.
Unlike the national target established in the National Education Strategic Plan (2011-2020) for student participation in the CSEC, there is no performance target for CSEC English language and mathematics. I believe it would be important to establish such a target within the Ministry of Education's accountability structure, as it would serve four purposes : 1) set an expectation for student achievement; 2) drive the system towards achieving this target; 3) help the system track and monitor itself; and 4) help with identifying deficits, developing targeted interventions, and allocating resources to the system.
The conclusion is that, after 12 years of education, many of our students are under-performing. In a globalised environment, these results should cause great concern, as Jamaica will not be able to compete regionally and globally in the short, medium, or long term. The sustainability of the country as highlighted in Vision 2030 is in jeopardy; therefore, the status quo must change and a new or redefined approach initiated.
III. Student Matriculation to Tertiary-Level Education, 2007-2011
Since 2005, there has been a policy that, in order for students to advance or matriculate to tertiary-level education, they must pass with Grades I-III in five or more subjects, including English language and mathematics. Based on available data, the number of students sitting five or more subjects has steadily increased over the period, with students sitting five or more subjects, including English language and mathematics, accounting for the highest percentage of the increase. Nonetheless, the data also suggest that less than 60 per cent of secondary students sitting the examinations meet tertiary-level requirements.
Moreover, female students consistently recorded a higher matriculation rate than their male counterparts. While the female rate increased from 33 per cent in 2007 to 37 per cent in 2011, the male rates also increased; but fluctuated below 20 per cent. The trend suggests that we will be seeing more female students on our tertiary-level education campuses.
IV. Looking to the future: Some important considerations
This examination has revealed less-than-desired levels of participation, which speaks to internal inefficiency and performance, or learning outcomes, with male students being consistently outperformed. This would suggest that opportunities for learning at the school level and the requisite external support from the home and community are not being maximised to meet the diverse learning needs of students.
There is no doubt that managing the public-education system to achieve consistent high-quality student outcomes is a complex undertaking. This, nevertheless, does not negate the fact that public education is a 'public good' and should be guaranteed for all students. The challenge for the stakeholders, as the minister of education stated in his Budget presentation, is, how can we improve the education system quickly and efficiently, and, how can we add value to this $77-billion investment?
This kind of undertaking demands that we - the minister of education, education officials, principals, teachers, students, parents, and the school community - commit to ensuring the delivery of high-quality education to every Jamaican child. One way that this can be achieved is by ensuring that the education system is responsive and that it provides the requisite support for schools as they carry out their core function. The system also must hold itself accountable. This commitment must be driven by a sense of clarity of purpose.
Second, numeracy and mathematics skills development requires urgent attention. The same fervour and attention that has been applied to literacy and English language development needs to be channelled into numeracy and mathematics. In so doing, the necessary policies, strategies, the training and deployment of adequate mathematics specialists across our schools, and the support of the numeracy specialists, must be put in place to support the needed improvement in CSEC mathematics.
Third, we need to become more data-driven. Using multiple sources of data can help in identifying the specific area underperformance, developing standards and mechanisms to track progress, designing targeted interventions, and determining and allocating resources to specific areas of need. The ministry must take the leading role - especially as it evolves towards becoming policy-driven - in developing data to drive the quality of information produced. In so doing, schools will cultivate a culture that relies on data, which would assist school officials in developing interventions that meet the diverse needs of all students.
I see schools adopting an approach used by Radley Reid, former principal of Campion College, which would help schools analyse relevant data, primarily the CSEC data and profiles, in order to identify areas of underperformance. It is with this information that a school-improvement plan is developed to strategically address areas of deficit.
Fourth, opportunities for learning need to be maximised at all levels of the system. CSEC preparation does not start in high school, but from the basic level where students acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills. We, therefore, need to ensure effective school leadership and management, including the board, as well as a qualified cadre of responsive teachers who consistently deliver top-quality instruction.
It is noteworthy to highlight that the teacher is a critical plank in the success of our schools, and by extension, the education system. It is only when our classrooms are transformed that the system will become transformed. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate supporting our teachers while holding them accountable for delivering instruction that is enriching and challenging, and which will lead to student learning and achievement.
While there are exigencies such as family issues, poverty, crime, and violence, which can and do have a negative effect on the teaching and learning process, an effective school administrator and teacher knows how to manage these factors and employ strategies that ensure that their impact on the student is minimised. While the National Education Inspectorate is carrying out its mandate, schools need to create a culture of self-evaluation that leads to school improvement.
Fifth, the evidence is indisputable: Our male students continue to lag behind their female counterparts and show low levels of learning and achievement as well as low levels of participation. There is need for greater focus on gender and education issues to address male underperformance - but not at the expense of our female students.
Sixth, our teachers require ongoing pedagogical support to maximise learning opportunities, which would lead to increased student achievement development. This can be achieved through embedded professional development. While the Jamaica Teaching Council is currently carrying out this activity across the island, it is important that school leadership take the initiative to institutionalise professional development.
Seventh, our students must be nurtured in self-directed learning. In so doing, students are encouraged to take ownership and be responsible for their learning. I encourage schools to adopt school-development plans where students, with their teachers, set targets and are given assistance in monitoring their progress. Parents must also be involved in this initiative.
Finally, parents have to play a critical role in the education of their children. Research shows that a child's achievement at school is significantly enhanced when the family creates a home environment that encourages learning, expresses high-but-realistic expectations, and becomes meaningfully engaged with the school and the community (Henderson & Berla, 1995). Parents need to do their part.
Grace-Camille Munroe, PhD, is an educational researcher/consultant.