Prior to the closure of schools due to the outbreak of covid19 in TT, 11-year-old Liam Carrington was counting down the days to the most important challenge he would face in his life as a primary school pupil – the day that would ultimately determine his future. Liam is one of over 19,000 students who were set to sit the Secondary Entrance Exam (SEA) on April 2 – the largest number to write the exam in ten years according to the Ministry of Education. At a press conference in January, Education Minister Anthony Garcia referred to SEA as a placement exam meant to facilitate the transition of students from the primary level to the secondary level. But many parents would argue that the exam, and the months of arduous preparation children must endure, warrant an importance far beyond the process of selection.
In TT, the SEA is the bane of every standard five pupil’s existence – not to mention the emotional, financial, and physical toll it can take on parents and guardians. Secondary school entrance examinations have been in existence from as early as 1879 in some Caribbean territories. They are the remnant of a colonial past defined by selectivism on the basis of class, which was inextricably linked to race and status, when places in secondary schools were limited and the demand was high. Nowadays, children in TT are guaranteed a place in secondary school, but the vast majority of those who prepare for the SEA compete for a place in what has been socially deemed a prestige or high-performing school, facing the demands of rigid schedules, compromising their physical and mental health, and leaving them with little or no free time to play, contrary to the widely-established recommendations for their healthy development.
The pressure on students to succeed is enormous – children’s self-esteem is at risk if they don’t live up to the expectations of their parents and teachers. For many, it isn’t enough to pass the exam, but passing for your first choice is valued most and rewarded by the wider society. Accolades pour out for the top 200 students, who receive bursaries and awards not only from the Ministry of Education, but from the corporate sector, local government bodies, and non-governmental organisations.
The business of SEA
This high societal value has been paralleled by the emergence of a lucrative extra lessons industry, along with the business of writing and publishing textbooks and practice test booklets that are religiously revised to align with the ever-changing specifications and objectives of the syllabus. One bookseller noted that SEA-related materials make up as much as 30 per cent of sales on all primary school books and stationery with a steady increase over the past few years. These resources are being purchased from as early as when a child enters standard four.
As for parents, time and money spent on SEA preparation is a sacrifice, often prioritised above any other activity in their children’s lives. Transporting them to different classes for mathematics, language arts, and creative writing, paying for photocopies, sourcing past paper solutions and buying the most recently released practice tests contribute to the financial burden on families.
The Ministry of Education received the biggest slice (10 per cent) of the 2020 national budget, its total allocation amounting to $5.8 billion. The ministry did not immediately respond to a request for the yearly administrative costs of SEA test development and delivery. That makes it difficult to consider the return on investment but data on student performance from SEA 2017 indicated that over 2000 students, representing 12.3 per cent of the total number who wrote the exam, actually scored lower than 30 per cent, barely an improvement from the 12.95 per cent in the previous year.
A bold step forward
Many education systems around the world are still dominated by high-stakes tests, the dangers of which affect holistic student learning and skills growth. Educators teach to the test, ignoring content deemed irrelevant to the assessment. As a result, children are deprived of an education that develops 21st century skills: communication, creativity, critical-thinking, global-awareness, digital literacy, social and cross-cultural skills, among others.
Earlier this year, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley reaffirmed commitment to widespread education reform including the abolishment of the Common Entrance exam. Instead of the highest performing students – in essence, the ones who test well – gaining access to the best schools in the country, PM Mottley asserted that the system of education should ensure that all schools are in fact schools of excellence. Raising the bar on teaching quality, ensuring schools are equipped with proper facilities, staffing, efficient management of resources, and fostering school improvement by promoting a culture of excellence are all contributing factors.
The highest-ranking education systems in the world have shifted away from heavy reliance on traditional testing, with a mandate to focus on learning, not steering. In countries like Finland, early childhood care and pre-primary education support children’s development, health and wellbeing while improving their opportunities for learning. Schools and teachers have a high level of autonomy. Basic education (ages seven-16) consists of core curricula that enhance the meaningfulness of learning and student engagement, with multidisciplinary modules that increase dialogue between subjects such as social studies, mother tongue and literature, visual arts, mathematics, crafts, foreign languages and music. There are no national exams in compulsory education. Instead, teachers assess student learning and working skill, with continuous feedback to support and guide students in a positive way.
Ongoing educational disruption
Amid the uncertainties brought on by covid19 is the underlying anxiety of children who were set to write national and regional examinations in 2020. The circumstances warrant timely decision-making and clarity of communication from the authorities to allay the apprehensions that students and parents must be feeling during this ongoing educational disruption. TTUTA president Antonia De Freitas acknowledges that the current situation offers an opportunity as a society to shift focus from high-stakes assessment to “essential learning and the development of student skills and competences”.
Indeed, the covid19 reality has afforded us critical insight into what we need to thrive – critical and creative thinkers who have an appreciation and synthesised understanding of subject areas and real-world effect and impact – not the best test-takers with access to resources. We are thus uniquely and urgently placed to keenly reevaluate not just the “what” of education, but perhaps more importantly, the “how”.
For Liam, though, this was a disruption he could do without. He had been ready for SEA. But as the uncertainty continues, his feelings have ranged from disappointed, frustrated and anxious to now, fed up. Another one of the costs of high stakes standardised testing.
Darcel Doodnath is a Teacher III. She teaches Spanish at Naparima College.