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Ditch GSAT's scattershot focus; target maths, English instead

Published:Tuesday | January 15, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Elaine Parker, Guest Columnist

Notwithstanding Ian Boyne's ringing endorsement of the minister of education, as it relates to the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), much is still left to be done. Just after the 2012 results were released, Ronald Thwaites roundly criticised the efficacy of the exam and promised to examine plausible adjustments to its structure. What has actually been done to this end?

Many parents, teachers and students have long known what a thoroughly useless exam it is, requiring students to fill their heads with a plethora of unnecessary information, depriving them of much leisure time, and frustrating teachers who scramble to complete a voluminous syllabus. This was pursued regardless of students' grasping the material, and while breaking the pockets of parents who can scarcely afford the required texts, much more the must-have extra lessons, seven days a week.

hypocritical system

The absurdity of it all is that a student (whether from a prep or primary) who has worked really hard to achieve excellence is then placed in a high school that carries with it no resonance of success. How do we justify that to a high achiever? People who say that children can fit in anywhere, and that they and their parents must learn to make the best of that situation, are not being realistic or truthful.

I need to ask the minister if he could, in all good conscience, allow his grandchildren to attend Denham Town, Tarrant, Dunoon or any of the other upgraded high schools. It is not only a question of the dubious academic quality of these schools, but more one of the unpalatable social and emotional upheavals to be experienced. Let us not bury our heads in the sand about that.

The only solution I see to this predicament is turning to a private high, or even a 'home-school' high. I would rather my child be educated at home than have her in one of those schools.

Thwaites' motto, 'Get it right the first time', makes perfect sense, as having students attain the desired academic outcomes the first time around, rather than engaging in expensive and time-consuming remedial-intervention programmes, is certainly financially prudent.

simplify learning

However, having new basic schools and more trained teachers in existing basic and primary schools might not be enough to engender the expected competencies if the focus and thrust of the primary curriculum, in particular, remains as it is.

If students were allowed to have greater contact hours with teachers, being taught the rudiments of maths, language arts, composition and comprehension skills, instead of being intensely immersed in social studies or science, as is now the case, one might see greater aptitudes in literacy and numeracy. The accumulation of facts garnered in those subjects is largely irrelevant when compared with the acquisition of the requisite abilities in verbal and written English and maths.

It is commendable, nonetheless, that grades have improved across the board in the last sitting. However, if the scope of GSAT were less comprehensive, with an 11-year-old needing to know material that will eventually be taught in grade nine at high school, when this child could better spend his time mastering the foundational skills of reading, writing (of compositions) and arithmetic, might we not have more literate students leaving the primary schools?

Perhaps, then, there need not be an English proficiency test at the tertiary level. If social studies and science must be taught, let them be for enrichment purposes only and not geared to passing an almighty exam.

change gsat structure

The format of GSAT should be adjusted as well. Just as in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams, where there are objective-type tests in addition to written papers, similarly, students doing GSAT should be allowed to give short answers or paragraphs to comprehension exercises and to show working for worded mathematical problems.

Also, I have always found it odd that the same mark was given for a form as for a continuous writing task. That makes absolutely no sense to me. Greater cognitive skills are required to create a piece of imaginative writing than for filling in a form. Surely, a marking scheme that gives the lion's share to the prose piece is more equitable.

In this vein, I do hope that whatever changes are planned for GSAT will take into consideration the students' academic and emotional development, as well as the constraints placed on teachers who have to implement policies tabled by so-called academics who are far removed from the classroom and deal mainly with theories.

Let's try to find something that works.

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