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ASTEP fiasco - Failing programme to be reformed, says Thwaites

Published:Wednesday | January 14, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Edmond Campbell and Alessandro Boyd, Staff Reporters

EDUCATION MINISTER Ronald Thwaites says changes are coming to the Alternative Secondary Transitional Education Programme (ASTEP) even as Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis yesterday reported a high failure rate and absenteeism in the primary level remedial programme.

Thwaites told The Gleaner yesterday that the inadequate outcomes of the ASTEP programme were disappointing but not surprising. He said the large majority of students who were referred to the programme had severe deficiencies of literacy and numeracy, adding that the programme was not geared towards correcting this.

"We have, therefore, reformed the ASTEP for 2015 into a system of alternative pathways which speak to the differing aptitudes of the students who don't do well at grade four and cannot improve enough to take the GSAT examination," Thwaites divulged.

He said within a month, the Education Ministry would outline in a ministry paper the new modalities for addressing the needs of the ASTEP students, "several of whom have emotional, physical, and relational issues that have prevented them from doing well".

"We are sorry that it shows this outcome, but we are aware of it and are correcting it," Thwaites stressed in relation to the findings of the auditor general.

In her 2013 annual report tabled in the House of Representatives, Monroe Ellis reported that approximately 17 per cent, or 471 students, of the 2,711 who sat the ASTEP examination achieved the pass mark of an average 70 per cent and over for the two components. At the same time, another 23 per cent, or 630 students, were absent from the ASTEP exam.

Last year, the Ministry of Education reduced the average pass mark to 60 per cent; however, the auditor general found in 2014 that about 19 per cent, or 514, of the 2,685 students achieved the pass mark, and 691 students did not show up at the examination, representing 26 per cent of the cohort.

Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, under whose
watch the ASTEP was conceptualised, said the poor results of the
programme was an indication that it needed better management and more

Holness said ASTEP was established to deal
with students who would have passed through the primary education system
but did not achieve full literacy, and, therefore, could not have taken
the Grade Six Achievement Test.

According to Holness,
ASTEP was set up to assist the 10 per cent to 15 per cent of students
who did not make it in general education and required special attention
and a greater depth of resources to address their issues. "Such a new
programme requires hands-on guidance, and it requires the initiative and
the energy of the policymakers and the technocrats to drive it to make
it work," he added.


Another critical issue raised by the
auditor general is the absence of guidance counselling services under
ASTEP since April 2013 as the 29 counsellors' employment contracts were
not renewed.

However, when contacted, Dr Grace McLean,
chief education officer at the Ministry of Education, said they had
already addressed the guidance counselling

"There are guidance counsellors in our all-age
and junior high schools that have been providing the counselling
services for the ASTEP students, so there would have been no reason for
us to continue having temporary guidance counsellors," she

"In 2013-14, we removed the ASTEP students from
the primary schools and we placed them in all-age and junior high
schools, and all these schools have guidance counsellors," she

The auditor general recommended that ASTEP
investigate the high failure and absentee rates for examinations and
take action to correct them to ensure that the ministry attains its goal
of 100 per cent and 85 per cent for mastery in literacy and numeracy,
respectively, by 2015.

Pertaining to the intervention
strategies to address both the high level of absenteeism and the low
pass rates for the test, McLean said the ministry had taken

"We addressed that as far as we could address
it. We meet with the parents and encourage them as much as possible to
send their children to school," McLean said.

"We also
do a psycho-educational assessment of the ASTEP students for each year
to assess their progress, and we do not send them on to high school, for
example, until we have seen the improvement. Where we do not see the
improvement, we have special strategies that we implement to make the
difference," she