Editorial | CXC, standards and compromise
While that wouldn't have been their intention, Jamaica's education minister, Ruel Reid, and the registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), Glenroy Cumberbatch, have to be careful of being perceived of wanting to lower the bar, rather than attending to the real problems of education in the region.
CXC is the body established more than 40 years ago by Caribbean governments to develop curricula for secondary education in the region and to award certificates based on examinations that flow from these. The most popular of these are its Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC), awarded mostly to high-school students, nearly 130,000 of whom annually write the tests in May and June.
A week ago, in Grenada, Mr Cumberbatch lamented what, when you strip it to its core, is a real crisis facing education in the Caribbean. He noted, for instance, that based on CXC's analysis, only around a fifth of what ought to be the region's eligible population actually got "the opportunity to enter" for the CSEC exams.
Our assumption is that large numbers of students, as is the case in Jamaica, are screened out of the exams on the assumption that they are ill-prepared for the tests. A significant portion of the cohort that enters high school at grade seven doesn't reach grade 11, when the exams are usually written, after five years of secondary school, having dropped out along the way. Some students also write alternative exams to those offered by CXC.
But even then, Mr Cumberbatch said that more than 11,000 candidates who took the exam did not received grades one to three - usually required for matriculation to higher education and the benchmark standard for most employers - in any of the subjects they sat.
"... If just over 20 per cent actually get the opportunity to enter and 13 per cent of those are not receiving any acceptable grades in the subjects they take, then you see why we consider it a concern," he remarked.
This newspaper certainly does. But rather than merely a matter of concern, we consider it a crisis in need of urgent and accelerated attention. Which is why we are concerned about the tone of Messrs Cumberbatch and Reid, which some people might consider, not unreasonably, an anodyne response.
In a region where employers usually demand passes in five CSEC subjects, at grades one to three, for better-paying entry-level jobs, Mr Cumberbatch suggested that they vary that approach, such as hiring young people with vocational and similar entry-level qualification, rather than relying on "CSEC alone".
NOT FOR HIRING
Mr Reid has largely echoed that suggestion, saying CSEC is now "used as a tool to qualify students for higher education, not for hiring". He added: "Employers are now themselves saying that CSEC is inadequate because if ... I need a plumber, five CSECs, including math and English, won't help me to become a plumber. ... I need certification."
This newspaper appreciates the need for vocational education and skill training, but doesn't believe that there ought to be hard lines of demarcation between vocational learning and general education. We would wish our plumbers, especially in this competitive in this global environment, to communicate proficiently in English and to accurately determine, either in metric or imperial measure, the length of pipe required for the job, as well as to, if necessary, research why the properties of PVC make it the best material for the specific application. Moreover, we do not expect general employers, or the public bureaucracy, to compromise the type or quality of certification asked of new hires as a sop to the high level of unemployment among the region's youth, which, we know, isn't the case being made by Messrs Cumberbatch and Reid.
Nonetheless, many people will hear in their remarks, especially Mr Cumberbatch's, a devaluing of CSEC, or worse, a willingness to compromise on standards. That narrative is in need of rearticulation, with clarification.