Wed | Jun 23, 2021

Editorial | Don’t dumb down CXC exams

Published:Wednesday | May 12, 2021 | 12:06 AM

THE CARIBBEAN Examinations Council (CXC) must resist the pressure of the umbrella regional teachers’ organisation to dumb down this year’s school-leavers’ exams. Education ministers, students and their parents, too, should not want to be part of the campaign and should so inform the Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT).

As is the case with almost everything in this pandemic, the last 15 months have been disruptive of education in the Caribbean – no less so in Jamaica. Mostly, in-class teaching has been in abeyance. The success of attempts to deliver education online has, at best, been patchy. Many students do not have the devices to log on to their classes, or they can’t afford Internet services, or when they can pay, the service is not available. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has made bare the region’s digital divide and highlighted its demarcation along economic and social lines.

So, when last week Jamaica’s education minister, Fayval Williams, reported that 120,000 students, equivalent to 29 per cent of all the combined enrolment in primary and secondary schools, have been absent from school, it hardly required a genius to reasonably speculate that they are disproportionately from poorer families, the demographic where good education tends to carry great economic utility.

In the face of this upheaval, Caribbean governments, as well as the region’s secondary education certification body, CXC, has grappled with how to ensure – the gaps in the teaching and learning process notwithstanding – that their validation of educational competence is not only credible, but comparable to previous outcomes. This newspaper feels that they, in the circumstances, have struck a fair balance, although we do not believe that it is the entire solution. Certainly not in the case of Jamaica.

First, the CXC postponed its Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and advanced proficiency, CAPE, exams for four weeks. They will now be held between mid-June to mid-July. Further, some of the requirements for the school-based assessment (SBA) projects have been eased and students have more time to present them. But of far more importance is the ability of students already enrolled for this year’s exams to defer them until next January, or until the CXC’s next summer cycle in May-June 2022.

The CUT, through its president, Garth Anderson, has different ideas – more akin to what was earlier being proposed by some in the hierarchy of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) but which, happily, appears to have gone into recession. Essentially, Mr Anderson, a former leader of the JTA, wants the CXC to set easier exams.

“It is inconceivable that CXC would want to conduct the 2021 examinations as a full-blown exercise in a period of tremendous challenges to Caribbean societies, families and education systems, and individual students,” Mr Anderson, as was reported by this newspaper, complained recently. Elsewhere, he has fretted over the lack of “face-to-face teaching for more than a year”, and that students will be tested on the entire subject syllabus. Additionally, he suggested that multiple-choice papers should have at least 50 per cent more questions so as to increase the probability of students getting questions to which they know the answers.

While we, too, appreciate the difficulties faced by students over the last academic year, Mr Anderson’s and the CUT’s proposals, should the CXC acquiesce, would pose practical difficulties for the equivalence of certification, which would place this year’s exam cohort at a disadvantage. As the CXC observed, it would impair its “ability to compare results across years”. Put differently, should Mr Anderson have his way, it is entirely possible that an employer or an education institution could question the quality of the passes of a student of 2021, against, say, someone who wrote the exams in 2019. Indeed, 2021 would be marked as the easy year.

The larger issue, however, is that ability of students, who feel themselves ill-prepared to sit their exams at this time, to defer them without economic consequences, once the decision is made by this Friday. Should the majority of students accept, this would not be a year of full-blown participation in the CXC’s summer exams, when more than 124,000 students, half of them Jamaicans, write the CSEC exams. Students, in consultation with their teachers and parents, can decide whether to go forward with 2021 exams, or defer until next year.

The right to defer is in keeping with our previous suggestion to Jamaica’s education authorities that they, for all intents, write off this academic year, but allow only those students whose parents and teachers feel they are prepared to transit to higher grades to do so.

In other words, the vast majority of students would repeat their existing grades to catch up on what was lost over the past year. This approach would, of course, demand serious logistical planning and creative effort to match physical classes and teachers with students, but would be far better than those hurried sessions where relatively little is gained or retained.