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EDITORIAL - Holding the education whoops for now

Published:Thursday | August 14, 2014 | 8:00 AM

We were tempted to join Ronald Thwaites, the education minister, in a few whoops over Jamaica's performance in this year's secondary schools examination results. For a 13-percentage point jump in passes for math and nine points in physics are not, on the face of it, the kind of outcomes you take for granted, especially with our track record in the sciences. It may be that, as Minister Thwaites suggests, his policies are beginning to work.

This newspaper, however, suggests restraint until Mr Thwaites and his technocrats analyse a broader set of data, inclusive of the performance of individual schools, so that there can be a more fulsome determination of the efficacy of the education ministry's efforts across the system, rather than relying on anecdotal assessments. And we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the pass rate for math, despite the sharp climb, was only 55 per cent.

At his briefing on Tuesday, Mr Thwaites highlighted the math performance for three so-called non-traditional high schools - Papine High, Mona High, and Pembroke Hall - where educational outcomes tend to lag behind those of the older, more celebrated institutions. They improved their passes, respectively, by 39, 26 and 13 percentage points.

Said Mr Thwaites: "This shows what we can do if we apply ourselves and if teachers and students are united in the effort." There is little, if anything, in that sentiment to contradict. Indeed, we commend the education ministry's strategy at targeting support, especially in core subjects like math and English, to poor-performing schools, and the additional efforts being made by some schools to lift standards.

What, however, is unclear from the available data is how many students from either of these schools sat math, or any other subjects at CSEC, and what proportion of their grade-11 cohort these numbers represented. It would also be useful to know how many students in these, and other, schools reached the benchmark of five subjects at a single sitting. On average, less than 20 per cent of Jamaican students meet this relatively low bar.


Indeed, there is a broader context to any review of the CSEC data, especially relating to the subjects highlighted by Minister Thwaites. For instance, while there was a two per cent increase in the number of students who registered for math this year, the 23, 839 who signed up represented only 56 per cent of the grade-11 cohort. Looked at another way, approximately 18,000 of the grade-11 cohort were, broadly, screened out of the math exam. Additionally, the increase in those who registered for math was cancelled out by the no-shows for the exam.

Further, even as we celebrate the 78 per cent pass rate for physics and the fact that registration this year increased by five per cent, we cannot but notice that the 5,139 who signed up was only 12 per cent of all grade-11 students, and that of those who registered, four per cent stayed away from the exam. The low registration numbers for math, and in the sciences, exaggerate the pass rates in these subjects.

It is not our intention, with these observations, to belittle and/or undermine improved outcomes in Jamaica's secondary education system. Indeed, we welcome all gains. However, it is this newspaper's view that sustained improvement can only benefit from hard-nosed analyses that inform policy and strategy.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.