April 13, 2003
While on the education front, everyone's attention has been absorbed with the teachers' strike, a revolution in primary education has been proceeding almost unnoticed. In June of this year, Prep B or Level 2 primary pupils will sit the first of a series of three examinations which are intended to replace the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE), popularly known as 'Common Entrance.'
In the educational jargon du jour, the new exams are being called 'assessments,' but parents should not be misled; no matter how they are labelled, they are exams nonetheless. The children who are due to pioneer the first of these tests in June, will be sitting the 'Grade Two Assessment,' which will be followed in 2005 by the 'Grade Four Assessment' and in 2007 by the 'Grade Six Assessment.' From 2007 onwards, therefore, the old SSEE will have been phased out completely, and all primary school children will be taking the three new 'assessments' instead.
According to a circular issued by Chief Education Officer Ed Caesar earlier this year, the results of this "assessment exercise" would inform placement at the secondary level. In other words, instead of having one exam at the eleven-plus stage to decide which secondary school a pupil will attend, children (and parents) will now have to undergo the stress of three over a period of years. And as for the weighting of these three exams, the Ministry of Education has said that the first will count for 20% of the final marks, and the second and third for 40% each.
There is one thing that all parents and teachers know - even if the Ministry of Education doesn't - and that is that children's rates of maturation vary enormously when they are young, and there can be great changes in a child's performance between the ages of six or seven, and eleven. It is not uncommon for a late-developing student who shows no particular aptitude for learning at the age of eight, say, to really blossom by the time he or she is ten. And conversely, there are those children who show early promise, but do not sustain that promise for the duration of their sojourn in the primary school.
It is possible to conceive, therefore, of a child who does really well in the first two 'assessments,' and falls off when he or she is older, but still achieves a better total than one who starts slowly, but really begins to shine around the ages of 10-11 in time for the final assessment. Surely there is something inherently unfair in any weighting being given to an examination taken when a pupil is around 7 years old in the first instance, and around 9 years old in the second, for the purpose of secondary placement at the age of 11.
In addition to the matter of unfairness, there is also the stress on young children, mentioned above, and the extra expense this is going to involve for the parents. Quite simply, the extra lessons syndrome will now rear its unhealthy head at the very outset of a child's school career, and parents will struggle to pay for all the additional after-school drilling that they have become persuaded is necessary to secure their child a 'good grade.' Even the smallest children, one can reasonably predict, will be denied play, not to mention reading time and space for other pursuits in the greater cause of these so-called 'assessments.'
The Chief Education Officer, however, indicated that the exams had another purpose in addition to secondary school placement. In his circular it was stated that the Ministry of Education was "making every effort to ensure that the performance of pupils is so carefully monitored that weaknesses in their academic development are identified and addressed promptly." Well, this rationale corresponds more truly to an assessment, although given the severe shortage of qualified teachers, among other things, it is difficult to see at this point exactly what the Ministry will be in a position to do if it discovers that a thousand or so seven/eight/nine/ten year-olds are not making the grade.
It seems that the Ministry has been caught in a categorical confusion. These new tests are either exams for secondary placement, or they are assessments. If they are simple assessments to allow the Ministry to identify system or pupil weaknesses in need of remedy, then save for the last one - which really can be for placement - they should not be employed for the purpose of determining which secondary school a child will attend.
The Ministry of Education has announced that it is phasing out the Common Entrance examination. In fact, what it is doing is phasing in three Common Entrance examinations in place of one.