Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Editorial | Don’t cut and run, CXC

Published:Wednesday | May 29, 2024 | 12:07 AM
Minister of Education and Youth Fayval Williams.
Minister of Education and Youth Fayval Williams.

This newspaper is surprised at the seeming lack of urgency with which Jamaica’s education authorities, especially Minister Fayval Williams, have reacted to the reported plan by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) to discontinue the testing of regional students in several science- and technology-related subjects.

Merely entertaining the idea, even if it is not implemented, is, to say the least, outrageous. Jamaica must tell CXC it will have none of it. The solution to low enrolment and poor results in the STEM subjects cannot be to discontinue the exams. Rather, CXC should help regional governments to fix the problem.

To approach the issue any other way is to suggest that CXC has lost its way and forgotten its mission. In which case, Caribbean governments can very well abandon the 45-year-old project of a regional body certifying the educational standards of regional students and return to the old arrangement of outsourcing that job to the universities of Cambridge and London, or some other such colonial institution.

It is widely known that English-speaking Caribbean countries have a problem with poor education outcomes, which is more acute in Jamaica than many of its regional peers. In the case of Jamaica, though, the focus of poor performance is primarily on English and mathematics. Last year, in those subjects, only 77.2 per cent and 44.7 per cent, respectively, of Jamaican students achieved passing grades in CXC’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams.

Moreover, in the CSEC tests, mostly taken by grade 11 students after five years of secondary education, under 30 per cent of Jamaica’s candidates pass five subjects, inclusive of English and maths, at a single sitting.

This is part of the backdrop against which the Jamaican Government, three years ago, established an Education Transformation Commission, whose recommendations, it says, are being implemented.

That overhaul, the Government has stressed, includes attention to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, with the aim of creating a workforce capable of operating in a 21st-century, technology-driven economy.

Indeed, just a month ago, Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared STEM education, and its application to the economy, as a priority for his administration.

“I am pleased to declare Jamaica a STEM island with a vision of fostering innovation, driving economic growth, and empowering our people to thrive in the global knowledge economy,” he said.

POOR TAKE-UP

It is in this context that it emerged, apparently inadvertently leaked by the education ministry’s external examination office, that CXC intended to drop several STEM subjects, including agricultural science, green engineering, and electrical and electronics engineering, from its syllabus because of poor take-up, and even worse student performances.

For instance, in 2022 only 15 candidates regionally wrote the Unit 1 tests for design and technology in CXC’s advanced level CAPE exams. Four of them received grade one, the highest grade. No student was enrolled for the more challenging Unit 2 tests.

In agricultural science at Unit 1 CAPE, the 191 students who did the test in 2022 represented a one-third decline from three years earlier. Seventy-three per cent, or 149 of the candidates, managed an “acceptable” grade, which for CXC ranges between grades one to five. No student managed a grade one – as was the case in the previous three exams, going back to 2019.

The performance was similar in Unit 2, where 189 students wrote the exam in 2022 and 153 received an “acceptable” grade. But like in 2021, 2020 and 2019, zero per cent managed a grade one pass.

Green engineering, too, had similarly low candidate enrolment in the exams: 87 in 2022; 38 in 2021; 65 in 2020; and 33 in 2019. Three per cent of the students received grade one in 2022; in the previous three years: zero per cent.

These figures, low enrolment and worse grades would suggest a logic in CXC dropping the subjects from its roster – if it were a private, for-profit enterprise.

But that is not the notion that this newspaper and the people of the Caribbean have of CXC. And it is not what it was intended to be.

MISSION STATEMENT

Like The University of the West Indies (UWI), and similar regional institutions – CXC’s mandate, as it declares in its mission statement, is to “develop the human capital of our Caribbean people through partnership for global competitiveness”.

The chairman’s statement on its website reinforces that message. “The Council values tremendously our responsibility to develop human capacity in our region,” says Sir Hilary Beckles.

These declarations do not sound to this newspaper like an institution that should be ready to cut and run at the first sign of trouble, leaving Mr Holness’ STEM initiative and others in the region in the lurch, needing to develop new, high-quality, internationally recognised certification at the secondary level.

If Caribbean people are not to think that CXC has lost its way, and that it sees viability only in large number of students doing its exams (notwithstanding high failure rates, such as in maths and English), then it will reconsider its stance on the STEM subjects it wants to lead to the gallows.

The appropriate thing for it to do is to sit with Caribbean education stakeholders – governments, teachers and their representatives, parents, the private sector and civil society organisations – to plan a massive, sustained assault against the region’s failure in education, including STEM subjects.