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Is the GSAT a Ponzi scheme?

Published:Sunday | April 1, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

LET'S FACE It. The Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) isn't just about measuring the academic accomplishments of primary school students. The test is a clear sign of the failure of our educational system to make adequate provisions for all children to access high-quality secondary education.

A ministry of education paper, 'What is the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT)?', admits that there is a serious problem with 'the system': "One challenge faced by the process is the public perception that students are not 'placed in a preferred school'. Upon examination of the system it becomes clear that the ministry's ability to place students in their preferred schools is dependent on the number of places available in each school, as well as the number of students selecting that school."

It was P.J. Patterson who famously defined Jamaican politics as "the fight for scarce benefits and political spoils carried on by hostile tribes which seem to be perpetually at war". P.J.'s vivid imagery of war could just as easily be applied to our educational system. Last month, approximately 44,000 students took the GSAT. They are battling for 45,324 secondary school places.

Those 'objective' figures suggest that there are more than enough places for all potential secondary school students. No scarce benefits. But there's a not so subjective subtext that must be taken into account. Certain schools are 'preferred' precisely because parents know that some secondary schools are much better equipped than others. And most students will not get into their parents' preferred school.

After reading the GSAT paper on the ministry's website, I called the Student Assessment Unit to get more data. The staff member to whom I spoke was very helpful. I learned that last year the first choice of approximately 19,000 of the 44,000 GSAT candidates was one of just 15 'preferred' schools across the island.

On average, each of these schools can accept only about 500 grade-seven students each year, for a total of 7,500 places. If you can pass GSAT maths, you will quickly figure out that 11,500 disappointed applicants (about 60 per cent) failed to get into these 'preferred' schools.

Olympic GSAT training

In a culture of scarce benefits and educational spoils, it's not just the academically fit who survive. There are other factors that determine performance. In the war for places in 'good' schools, the wealthy usually beat the poor. Preparing children to take the GSAT is quite an expensive business. And it is, in fact, a business for the many service providers.

Take, for instance, GoGSAT which outlines payment options on its website: "GoGSAT offers service at a Bronze, Silver and Premium service level".

Like the Olympics. GoGSAT's choice of names for the levels of its service cleverly acknowledges the fact that preparing for the GSAT is an extreme 'sport'. It requires the discipline and endurance of an Ironman Triathlon athlete. Just ask any child (or parent) who has survived the rigorous training programme for the GSAT.

And GoGSAT's fees are not cheap. At the top end of the scale, students can get personalised online tutorials for J$12,000.00 per month. The generic packages are, of course, cheaper. The rate for the one-month premium package is US$45.00. But it does get more economical the more months you take. For a year, it's $US149.00. The basic/bronze service is actually free and quite helpful, as I've been told.

As early as grade one, students can start preparing for GSAT with the GoGSAT service. It seems as if most students cannot pass the GSAT by simply going to school. Extra lessons are compulsory. And if you can't afford personalised, silver or premium extra lessons, 'yu salt'. But why should a test of the achievement of grade six students be so difficult? Shouldn't 'achievement' be the outcome of six years of teaching and learning in primary school? Apparently not.

If students are forced to take 'extra lessons' to pass the GSAT, something must be fundamentally wrong with the primary education programme. Or with the Grade Six Achievement Test! The failure of students to 'achieve' cannot be dismissed as simply a matter of individual ability, or the lack of it.

Selling illusions

I am indebted to one of my friends for the brilliant insight that the whole GSAT pretence of 'achievement' is really a Ponzi scheme. Ponzi schemes sell the illusion that everyone can get rich by 'investing' in a dubious enterprise. In the case of the GSAT, the Ministry of Education is selling the illusion that all students who achieve can get into 'good' secondary schools.

The people who get in on the Ponzi scheme early in the game do get back their money. But those at the very bottom of the predatory feeding chain don't stand a chance. Poor people's children at the lowest levels of the GSAT pyramid have a very hard time collecting any benefits and spoils from the system. Most of them leave school barely literate and completely unprepared for the job market.

Wealthy people who can afford to send their children to expensive prep schools and who can pay for Olympic GSAT training are at the top of the Ponzi scheme. They will certainly get excellent returns on the money they've invested. Even if their children don't get the right scores for admission into 'good' schools, these well-connected parents can use their influence to manipulate the system.

It's time to 'mash up' the Ponzi scheme. We should abolish the GSAT and assign places to secondary school purely by lottery. If by chance an Outer City Prep School student draws the bad card of an Inner City High School, that's that. And if the luck goes the other way, so be it. The playing field would finally be level.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and