Thu | Feb 25, 2021

Editorial | Clarify CSEC options

Published:Wednesday | January 27, 2021 | 4:18 AM

It is to the continued exasperation of this newspaper, and the vast majority of Jamaicans, we believe, that neither the education ministry nor the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA), the teachers’ union, have engaged stakeholders in a robust discussion on how best to get on with the business of teaching and learning in this disruptive COVID-19 environment.

It is not our contention that Fayval Williams, the education minister, and her senior technocrats, have not communicated with parents and schools about their myriad plans to deliver education in these difficult times. Indeed, most people know about the attempts at online learning, the use of broadcast media to deliver lessons, of the return to in-class teaching at some schools, and of the so-called blended approach, utilising all these forms.

The JTA and its constituent parts, particularly its subgroup of principals, have not been shy about offering their perspectives, especially when it comes to declaring what cannot work, about which they tend to be especially loud.

We, however, have neither seen nor heard a genuine conversation between policymakers, teachers and schools, parents and students. Thus far, it has been mostly a one-way flow of information on dissonance-filled channels, with little or no feedback. Or when there is, it is mostly garbled responses with distorted meanings. It is no surprise, therefore, that there is a sense of babel in, and about, the process of education. Few people are on the same page.

The need, first, is to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language.

The need for ascribing common meaning to proffered ideas was underlined by Ms Williams’ disclosure last week, as reported by the Government’s Jamaica Information Service (JIS), of a series of options – five – being considered for conducting this year’s Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC) Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams.

Maybe the parents and guardians of students who attend independent schools, whose conference the minister addressed via Zoom, grasped the options she outlined. They appear to include either holding the exams, or parts thereof, at different times; omitting some papers; and incorporating psychometric modelling and teacher-predicted scores in awarding marks and grades to teachers.

We, however, are not sure that this is what Ms Williams meant, or of our interpretation that Jamaica’s preferred option for CSEC (and presumably the advanced Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination exams) is correct. Jamaica’s backing, as we grasp it, is for part of the CSEC exams, the multiple-choice portion and essay papers, to be held at the normal time in May-June, and the school-based assessment (SBA) projects delivered in June-July. All options contemplate “accommodating” – presumably by schools – students who were unable to sit the exams this year.

TWO FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES

We start with two fundamental principles with respect to this matter. The first, which we articulated just over a fortnight ago, is that whatever arrangements are made, or systems adopted, for this year’s CXCs, there must be no dumbing-down of the exams. That, we feared, was inherent in suggestions by the president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, Linvern Wright.

We adopted the view of Ronald Thwaites, the former education minister, that any softening of the exams would disenfranchise students of their right to the best quality education and the most rigorous testing as they prepare to compete in the global economy.

Second, the basis on which the exams are set and managed, and the premise by which Jamaica approves an option, are too important for there not to be absolute clarity about what underpins this country’s decision.

Further, the controversies across the region over the grading of last year’s modified exams remain fresh, including the finding of a CXC review task force of a “lack of thoroughness and vigilance by teachers while marking SBAs, leading to the award of full marks, in some instances, for areas that students did not even attempt”. The credibility of the CXC might not survive another such crisis.

SHIFT IN POLICY

In the circumstances, this newspaper repeats its position that all testing of students, whether at the primary or secondary level, should be within the established norms. Those students who, because of the pandemic, have missed chunks of their education and have fallen behind, must be allowed to continue from the stage of the curriculum they now master, without being hustled along to higher classes in order to comply with guidelines or meet quotas. At the secondary level, this may require a shift in policy to allow students beyond the defined age to stay in school for a year or two longer.

In this crisis, though, education needs a national dialogue. Not merely policymakers and pedagogues preaching to everybody else who may be struggling with ways to keep their children in school and safe at the same time, while simultaneously hustling for the next meal or finding the cost of a data package for a child to log into classes.

This requires a different level of conversation and empathetic engagement. Or rather, a multiple-channel communication discourse, in lines cleared of the dissonance. We again invite Minister Williams and the JTA’s president, Jasford Gabriel, to get such a conversation going.