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The CSEC debate

Published:Friday | January 29, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Cynthia Cooke, Contributor


When the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) was introduced, it was felt that the General Certification Examination (GCE) was not catering to all the students in the system. At that time, only about 30 per cent of the students who sat the examinations were successful. With only about 40 schools entering students for that examination, one can extrapolate to have an idea of the percentage of the age cohort, passing that examination.

The GCE was designed as a means of measuring matriculation readiness of British expatriates for university. Using the Bell curve was, therefore, sufficient. How then should we certify the remaining 70 per cent of the students? That was the question.

Educators and Politicians decided they would have two examinations set by CXC. One would replace the GCE and a second to take care of the students at the next level and individual territories would set a local examination for the rest. This would take care of certification for the entire cohort. The examination, which was called the Basic Proficiency, was to be called General Proficiency and the now General something else.

The CXC decided not to say pass or fail, but to provide profiles of the grade and persons using this examination to determine proficiency in a subject area, could determine the level of proficiency needed and find the appropriate profile.

The CXC curricula are designed by our educators. A panel is set up for each subject, on which practising teachers sit. This panel hears from the practising teachers and makes suggestions for adjustments accordingly.

Qualifying for sixth form

So where are we now? We have done away with the Basic examination. Over 160 high schools now enter students for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations. More students are sitting the CSEC examination and getting satisfactory grades. This is manifested in the large number of students now qualifying for sixth form and universities. However, the number of students receiving unsatisfactory grades, or not sitting any examination, has also risen significantly. We are now back to where we started, one examination to certify our school leavers. Yes, they have introduced the Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Competence (CCSLC), but many schools are not using it as a school-leaving examination. Did we have to come to this?

Instead of selling the Basic examination and refusing to back off from a good thing, the teachers yielded to the pressure from the parents and influenced panel. Of course, it was evident that the Basic would eventually fail to attract enough entries and died.

The SBA, School Based Assessment, is the best part of the process. So frequently we have complaints from parents wanting it to go, but it is the complaints from the teachers that are sad. They want to be paid to mark them. They say it is a part of the examination and so they should be paid. Teachers should be happy to have a say in the grade that their students receive in any assessment process. It has been difficult to arrive at the format for the SBA in mathematics and English language. I actually thought, years ago, that they had made a decision in mathematics.

I even had the students at my school doing projects every year from grade seven, in order to be accustomed to doing it by the time they reached grade 11.

Changing a policy or rule

I have always been against changing a policy or rule just because it affects a small minority in a bad way. I am also against changing a good rule or policy because a few of the persons responsible for implementing it want to give up because of some challenges.

That is why I will always ask, how many persons are affected when someone suggests changing a rule and insisted that a foreign language be made compulsory for all students up to grade eleven, even when I was advised that the students don't like it. The solution was to sell the idea to the students. It worked.

Examinations can only tell the knowledge of a candidate in the tested area of a subject on that particular day at that particular time and nothing else. However, there has been no other way to assess students fairly. You should only test what was taught. Many students are not taught or cannot be taught the tested syllabus, yet they still sit the examinations. So what are these results telling us about the abilities of our students? Not a whole lot. We lost our way when we decided to use the results to rank schools.

CXC is our examination. We have enough expertise to design a curriculum to cater to the needs of our countries and design multiple examinations that will truly assess all the abilities of all the students. The CCSLC is a start in the right direction. When we think we have a good product, stick to it.

Cynthia Cooke is principal of Camperdown High School Kingston. Feedback may be sent to