Primary school exams Editorial
Stabroek News
December 21, 2001

Speaking on the GTV/GINA television programme Answers on Sunday, Minister of Education Henry Jeffrey said that the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE), popularly known as the Common Entrance, would be abolished by the year 2003. In its place would come three primary school exams, the first at Level Two (Prep B), the second at Level Four (Primary Two) and the third at Level Six (Primary Four). The existing SSEE examination is also taken at Level Six, but exactly how this will differ from the new one to be introduced was not stated.

What the Minister did say was that the current placement system based on performance would still remain, it was just that there would now be three placement exams instead of one. The long-term aim, of course, is to end streaming in the first years of the secondary school, and to have students attend schools in their own neighbourhoods. However, the Minister considered that for various reasons it would be a while before parents would acquiesce in this, and it would in any case take time before there would be parity in terms of teaching quality in all secondary schools.

It was also not clarified during the course of the programme how the proposed exams in the primary schools would actually be used for the purposes of placement at a secondary level. Would an average be taken for the three scores? Or would a greater weighting be given to the Level Six test? And would the content and structure of the latter be similar to what now obtains in the SSEE, or would it be something entirely novel?

Considering that many parents had complained about the stresses of Common Entrance on their eleven-year-olds, the Minister might have some explaining to do as to why he is about to multiply that stress by substituting three examinations for one. Perhaps he was partly addressing this on the programme when he said that many people believed that the SSEE was responsible for problems of literacy and numeracy. If examinations focusing on literacy and numeracy started at Level Two and continued at Level Four, he argued, teachers would be forced to work with students on a continuous basis in order to achieve and maintain high levels of performance.

The question is, of course, whether Common Entrance really is responsible for the fact that pupils graduate to the secondary level without being able to read properly or understand basic arithmetical concepts. The exam itself (although not in its present form) antedates our current educational problems by many decades, and while the format of the test may conceivably be a contributory factor to our problems, it is difficult to see how a single examination in principle at the eleven-plus stage could be the source of all our educational ills.

And as for the teachers being forced by national exams at Levels Two and Four to work with students to achieve a high standard, it might be noted that in the city schools at least, the pernicious practice of extra lessons is already in full swing at the Prep B stage, and that for an examination which is a few years down the road. If the additional exams really have as their primary aim the galvanising of teachers to teach effectively, then the Ministry will very likely find itself disappointed with the outcome.

Whatever the case, it is time that the Ministry of Education hold a press conference to explain their plans in greater detail to teachers, parents and the public at large. If the intention is to replace the current SSEE by 2003, then everyone will need ample warning about the changes, and will need time to seek clarification about areas of uncertainty. For its part, the Ministry too might benefit from a public debate on the matter.