Sun | Mar 26, 2023

Editorial | GNAT optics don’t look good

Published:Thursday | June 3, 2021 | 12:07 AM

THE EDUCATION minister, Fayval Williams, is compelled to provide a fuller explanation for her decision to cancel this year Grade Nine Achievement Test (GNAT), lest it be perceived as an affirmation of the second-class status of the children who write this exam, and of the perpetuation of inequality in Jamaica’s education system.

We know that would not be the minister’s intent. Indeed, the action is broadly in keeping with what this newspaper has proposed, except that we suggested it right across the education sector.

As elsewhere, the coronavirus pandemic has, over the last 14 months, played havoc with Jamaica’s education system since the first COVID-19 case was detected in the island. Face-to-face teaching has essentially halted. Attempts at delivering education online, or via other broadcast formats, have not worked well. Indeed, the education ministry reported that since the pandemic, schools have lost contact with a third of their students.

Unsurprisingly, the education authorities have struggled with how to assess students, including their readiness for transitioning to new classes, including to high schools. This newspaper’s preferred option, first suggested during the initial wave of the pandemic, would be for a write-off of the school year, essentially treating it as a lost period.

The default, in the circumstances, would be for all students to repeat their classes, catching up in a hopefully more settled environment. Elements of the curriculum missed or glossed over would be revisited. However, students whose parents and teachers felt they are appropriately prepared for advancement would be allowed to do so, having satisfied the appropriate diagnostics.

This approach would require buy-in from all stakeholders, including teachers and parents, as well as aggressive mobilisation by Minister Williams. There would also have to be significant preparatory and logistical work by the planners to ensure that things worked smoothly.

Ultimately, the ministry did not agree with this idea. At the primary level, it has cobbled together a patchy system of testing that gives an illusion of normality.

For instance, last week, grade-six students, who are transitioning to high schools, did their preliminary exit profile (PEP) examinations - of sorts. They did the ability test, which is aimed at measuring the analytical and quantitative reasoning skills of the students. However, like last year, there were no curriculum-based tests in language arts, mathematics and science. Neither was there a performance task test, or classroom evaluation of students by teachers.

Further, the PEP performance task exams for grades four and five students will now take place in December, or towards the end of the first term of the new school year. Which seems a reasonably sensible move to us, if there is not going to be a full-blown freeze on promotions. It seems that there will be some amount of straddle of their old and new forms by current grades four and five students.

By contrast, the education ministry announced that the GNAT, typically done by children in the 15 to 16 age range, has been scrapped. These students will be placed in secondary schools closest to their homes or to the schools they now attend.

This decision should, at least in part, have our support. It seems to meet some of what we proposed. Yet, there are complications.

The approximately 40,000 grade-six students who annually sit the PEP examinations vie for the limited space in Jamaica’s top high schools - especially the 50 or so elite traditional high schools, among the island’s more than 150 high schools. As criticised as this uneven arrangement is, the students who face the test at grade six have a shot of making it to decent high schools, if not the top ones.

But there are also 175 all-age and primary/junior high schools, which go to grade nine. Some of the students at these institutions are in the 14 and 15 age range. Some may have failed, or not attempted, to gain high-school places at grade six. They now write GNAT exams for entry into either the ‘traditional’ or technical high schools.

Their exam, however, has been scrapped. So, these grade-nine students will be placed in schools near to their homes, which suggests that they will have little or no chance to select the schools they want to attend. That has a hint of zoning, a system resisted for decades by parents who want their children enrolled in what are perceived to be the best schools, with the biggest reputations.

Minister Williams would not be taken aback if there are claims that this can happen, because these are grade-nine students who are not expected to break for the best schools. That is not the kind of optics that she, we believe, wants to have - of actively perpetuating the elitist system. That is why she must offer a full explanation of the rationale for the decision.