Sat | Dec 9, 2023

‘It’s a big joke’

• Too much emphasis on CSEC, CAPE grades and not concepts, lecturers complain • Basic deficiencies found even in top performers entering university

Published:Sunday | May 2, 2021 | 12:19 AMTameka Gordon - Senior Staff Reporter
Dr Donovan Stanberry, campus registrar at UWI, Mona.

Students matriculating as undergraduates at the tertiary level are increasingly presenting with skill gaps not consistent with their qualifications obtained in high-school exit examinations and many are unprepared for the intensity and academic...

Students matriculating as undergraduates at the tertiary level are increasingly presenting with skill gaps not consistent with their qualifications obtained in high-school exit examinations and many are unprepared for the intensity and academic rigour expected at that level, some university lecturers say.

The lecturers, who spoke with The Sunday Gleaner on condition of anonymity, say they have, over the years, observed a deficiency in the comprehension and analytical skills as well as the English language proficiency of students.

“There is a deficiency in the students. The way in which they are being taught and prepared does not prepare them for university. This level of study is intense, so when you have to now go and do remedial stuff in terms of reading and comprehension, then you have a huge problem,” one lecturer said.

Citing the inability of many students to transfer learning and apply analysis required for academic rigour, the lecturers contend that the quality of passes in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) does not necessarily equate to competence the students need at the tertiary level.

“There is too much attention being placed on getting grades and not so much on the development of the students. What we are seeing now is because of that, you may have a student getting a grade one in the exam, but they really don’t know anything. Put the concepts of the exam in a different context and they are completely lost,” one university lecturer said.

“This goes to show that they don’t really understand the concepts. They are just looking for associations and [while] that will guarantee that they pass the exam, it does not guarantee that when they get to university – where they have to read, comprehend and analyse – that they actually have the skills, so there is a huge gap,” the lecturer said.

Emphasis on grades

They contend that there is too much emphasis on the grades students receive and not enough on the “quality of learning”.

“We look at the grades, but we never look at the outcomes. They go into jobs, but how do their employers view them? Can they go elsewhere with these qualifications?” one lecturer reasoned.

Another lecturer noted that the situation has grown quite grim in the last few years.

“The quality of students being accepted into university has been deteriorating. Students come in with a grade one in English language and English literature and they can’t write a sentence in English,” bemoaned the educator.

The lecturers were speaking with The Sunday Gleaner in the wake of last week’s report of secondary school teachers opting to make significant adjustments to school-based assessments (SBA) for CSEC candidates to ensure good pass rates and suitable school rankings.

The teachers contend that with the poor quality of work submitted by some students – many of whom have been seriously affected by connectivity issues in the remote learning arrangement in place for more than a year now – they have no other option but to do the work themselves.

“If we are to send in the work that the students give us, many of them would fail,” one St Catherine-based teacher said, adding that “fixing up the SBAs” for students has not been necessitated only by the current pandemic but by a historical need precipitated by the placement of students with very low scores from the primary-school exit examination at the school that she teaches.


Bridging the gap

With COVID-19 forcing the suspension of the English Language Proficiency Test, “which acted as a filter” to separate stronger students from those who need the mandatory remedial help, there is a great concern for lecturers at the University of Technology, admitted Treseka Campbell-Dawes of the institution’s Language Technology and Research Centre.

“Pretty much, what the lecturers are now getting since there is no filter is everybody, and they have to be dealing with students who are extremely weak and who are not ready for academic writing,” Campbell-Dawes told The Sunday Gleaner, noting reports of increased failure rates for academic writing classes.

She, however, pointed out that the performance of the students in the academic writing courses may not be a proxy of their performance in their areas of specialisation.

For another lecturer, the problem stems from the extraordinary focus on “passing exams”.

“They are coming out [of high school] very exam-centred [and] many of them are not ready. What we have is an industry going on with easy access to past papers and repeated questions. It’s a big joke. CXC has lost all credibility for me. You have a test bank and you do recycle, but you cannot recycle the exact papers,” the lecturer said, charging that this has served to erode the integrity and efficacy of the exams.

“There should be a better mix of the items with more new questions,” the lecturer said, adding that students are prepared for the examinations based on exposure to past questions and not necessarily because they have learnt the skills to master the subject areas.

The result: “It takes a lot more effort on the part of the lecturers and it takes a lot more out-of-class sessions with the students to get them up to the level where they can think critically and where they are able to manage the language in such a manner that they can write essays that make sense and to bring their comprehension skills up to the particular level that is required at university,” one lecturer said.

What makes the situation more bearable is that, for the most part, many students, upon realising their shortcomings, “are willing to put in the effort”.

“Some of them were leaders in high school – head boy, head girl and prefects. They are coming in with a particular perception: ‘We are doing well. We got [grade] ones in all these subjects.’ But when they find that what is required is a lot more than what they are coming in with, they are willing to put in the work in order to get to the level that we would want them to get to,” the lecturer said.

While not all are willing, the attitude of the majority encourages the efforts of the lecturers.

“The lecturers are [also] willing to work with the students,” the lecturer said.

In a previous interview with our news team, the CXC accepted the concerns raised about the repetition of questions from past papers and said that it was advanced in refreshing its bank of exam questions to counter the issue.

Registrar at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus, Dr Donovan Stanberry, speaking with The Sunday Gleaner regarding the readiness of students matriculating over the years, said that the university’s mechanisms to identify and assist weak students have been working well.

“Regardless of the issues at the high-school level, universities are supposed to be transformative. When we take them here, we do what is necessary to provide them with the support so that they came come out better than they came in,” he said.

The UWI received just over 10,000 applications for the 2020-21 academic year with close to 5,600 being accepted, he said.

“At the point of admission, we would have no way of knowing whether there would be knowledge behind those grades because we simply accept those grades. However, we do realise that sometimes, even with the best of grades, some of our students have issues with English and mathematics,” he said.

Those students are fed into compulsory programmes aimed at sharpening their skills, Stanberry said, adding that most faculties have developed mandatory remedial programmes.

“Those are some of the strategies that we use to make up for whatever deficiency there might be at the CSEC level,” the campus registrar said.

“My view, in terms of the passes, is that we really have to start addressing those issues much lower down in the school system,” he said, noting a “persistent problem with literacy and mathematics” in Jamaica.

Student profiles have improved over the years, however, with more students presenting with “straight-A profiles and way more than the five CSEC or two CAPE passes” required for matriculation into the university, Stanberry said.

Last year, after the CXC faced a shower of criticisms over its handling of the summer sitting and questions were raised about the integrity of the grades, its chairman, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, who is also the UWI vice-chancellor, pointed to deficiencies in the overall education system, noting that the preparedness and outcomes of students were not an indictment on the competence of the regional examinations body itself.

Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica CEO Dennis Chung agrees with the lecturers that many graduates at both the secondary and tertiary levels lack the requisite competence congruent with their academic qualifications when seeking jobs.

“Many of them are not [sufficiently] prepared for the world of work in the way they express themselves, and the level of grammar is not the best,” Chung said.

He believes the problem will likely worsen due to the limitations placed on the education system by the pandemic.

“In the last year, there have been no face-to-face classes and this could significantly impact the labour market and national productivity in the years to come,” he said.

“All the private sector will do is automate, and given the virtual environment in which we now operate, we can work with persons from other countries,” he cautioned.