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Change the system

Published:Friday | January 15, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Minister of Education Andrew Holness is rightly upset at the low pass rate of Jamaican students in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination. Wednesday's Gleaner reported: "He said the 2009 CSEC statistics in English and math for Jamaica were extremely frightening." Only 42 per cent of Jamaicans who sat English passed that subject, and an even smaller proportion - 37 per cent - passed mathematics.

I agree with him. It is frightening! But I do not agree with his remedy. According to The Gleaner report: "Education Minister Andrew Holness says his ministry is to review the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination to assess its relevance to Jamaican students." According to Minister Holness, the existing exam system, which has been used for years to establish performance targets at the secondary school level, is in need of an overhaul. "CSEC is considered as the basic entry level examination for pursuing tertiary studies or entering the labour market, and so many of our students have failed it," said Holness. "We have to take a second look at it - to see if this exam adequately reflects the competence of the student."

Inadequate reflection

At the end of my high school studies (in 1968) I sat the Cambridge GCE O' Level examination in English language. The comprehension passage we were given was a description of a fireplace, complete with grate, poker, bellows and screen - a scene almost completely foreign to the Jamaican experience. Only the year before at Whitfield Hall, on my way to Blue Mountain Peak, had I personally seen these implements, although I had come across them while reading novels. It does not take a highly paid education consultant to question the "relevance to Jamaican students" of that sort of passage, and to conclude that exams set in England did not "adequately reflect the competence of the [Jamaican] student".

And so we got CXC which morphed into CSEC - examinations set in the Caribbean, by Caribbean examiners, for Caribbean students. Less than half the Jamaican entrants pass these examinations, which is "frightening"; and so Minister Holness wants to "overhaul" them.

After examinations are overhauled, if more Jamaicans pass them, then the overhaul with be deemed to have "solved the problem". If after the examinations are overhauled, and still less than half the Jamaican entrants pass them, then the problem would not have been solved and, presumably, the exams will again, need to be overhauled.

Clearly, the assumption Minister Holness is making is that more Jamaican students are competent in English and mathematics than CSEC is finding. Therefore, Minister Holness concludes, the problem must be in the examination and not in the students, and definitely not in the teachers who fail to teach the students adequately. The teachers' lobby and the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) could not have written a more self-serving analysis if they had tried.

Lowering the standards

I don't know who is buying this analysis put forward by the minister of education and his advisers. Everyone I have spoken to on this matter since Wednesday believes that what the minister is really calling for is the lowering of the standard of the CSEC examination, so that more Jamaicans will pass it. And then he will be able to report dramatic improvements in the quality of our education system under his watch.

I hope our Caribbean colleagues - who have a big say in how our Caribbean examinations are designed - do not allow Minister Holness to have his way in this matter. They will not want their standards to fall to match ours.

What is the minister saying about the 42 per cent of Jamaicans who passed English and the 37 per cent who passed mathematics? That they are abberations? That they are somehow extraordinary? And what of those who passed English during the Eurocentric days of GCE? Surely, they should feel ashamed of their un-Jamaicanness. Mea maxima culpa (we did Latin in those days), for I got a distinction in English (a 'one' in those days) and won the English prize at graduation.

I think Jamaica would be better served if Minister Holness directed his energy at fixing the system where it is really broken - in the classroom, where the subject matter is not being adequately taught. He needs to carry out his promise to introduce - for the first time, at last - real accountability in the classroom. I predict that if teachers are paid according to their performance (including special incentives), we will observe a miraculous improvement in CSEC passes.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.