Primary Two Assessments
May 30, 2003
While we are rushing with enthusiasm towards implementing an assessment for seven-year olds, the first test in a three-tier exam structure which will eventually replace the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE), England is beginning to back-pedal on testing children so young. The tests for seven-year-olds were introduced first in England and Wales in 1991, but Wales has now abandoned them in favour of teacher assessments.
There has been a groundswell of complaints both from parents and teachers about the English assessments, on the grounds that the tests place young children under too much stress, and cause overcentralization in the system and a narrowing of the curriculum. Unlike what is proposed in this country, the assessments in England are not used for secondary school placement purposes; however, the system is tied to national performance targets, and the results are published. It is this which places the teachers under such pressure, say the critics, and they in turn put pressure on the children to perform. The narrowing of the curriculum comes about because only two areas are assessed, viz, English and Maths.
According to BBC reports, the campaign against the Standard Assessment Tests (SATS), particularly those for seven-year-olds, has been led by an association of the heads of primary schools and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which has threatened to boycott them next year. The General Secretary of the NUT was quoted as saying that there was evidence to indicate that "[SATS] results have reached a plateau and are even beginning to fall." He also claimed that the abolition of the tests in Wales had "raised morale in the schools."
Bowing some way to the clamour, the Education Secretary has now promised a more creative primary school curriculum, and the downgrading of SATS which will be integrated with teacher assessments. However, he was not prepared to abandon the assessments altogether. The BBC quoted one Department of Education spokeswoman as saying that "testing is central to raise standards." The Department was not slow either to attribute England's recent success in international league tables - English pupils are now among the best in the world - to national performance targets and testing.
One has the impression, rightly or wrongly, that it is the English experiments with testing which have inspired the soon-to-be-introduced Guyanese model. Like the Department of Education in England, the Ministry here clearly feels that a national curriculum and national targets are essential to raising standards, and that identifying problems early is the key to success. As indicated above, there is one major difference where the local assessments are concerned, and that is that even the Primary Two assessment at age seven will be used as a basis for secondary school placement at age 11.
As has been argued before in these columns, that is not just grossly unfair, but it is also to put children under extreme strain at a very early age. Surely the Ministry of Education is not so naive as to believe that the new arrangements won't have any effect on the extra lessons syndrome; experience should have taught them by now that with marks from tests at ages seven and nine contributing to a final result at age eleven, parents will be sending their children to extra lessons from the tender age of six, or even five. Why both parents and teachers have not raised objections to this as yet is something of a mystery.
Be that as it may, let us suppose for the sake of argument that the Ministry of Education were to abandon plans to use the exam as a partial basis for secondary school placement, and employ it purely as an instrument of assessment. Could it serve a useful purpose in such circumstances? As in England, it would of course, narrow the curriculum. But would that really matter in a school system which currently fails to teach pupils even the basics of the three Rs? Is it not better at this stage that they get a good foundation in reading, writing and mathematical concepts appropriate to their age, than that they are exposed to a range of educational possibilities?
It might be added too, that the overall quality of teaching in the English primary schools is infinitely better than in Guyanese schools. That was not necessarily always the case, but it is the case now. While there are still some remarkable teachers serving in our educational system, there are far too many who are either unqualified, or who are wanting the solid educational foundation necessary to instruct students. As such, they probably lack the capacity to teach a range of subjects adequately in any case.
However, it must be observed that testing and national standards in and of themselves will not raise the performance levels of pupils in the schools if there is an insufficient number of quality teachers. What the Ministry will probably find after the first assessment (if it didn't know this already) is that large numbers of pupils across the country are not meeting the minimum required standard, and given the current teaching crisis, it will not have a great deal of latitude to do much about it.
One can only hope that officials are looking at innovative ways in terms of distance learning and in the preparation of comprehensive teaching modules to give inexperienced or unqualified teachers - the experienced ones will not need it - detailed instructions about what to do at every stage, leaving no room for innovation born of ignorance.
But why, it could be reasonably asked, not go over entirely to teacher assessments, and forget the tests altogether? Again, the argument is that in a system which is failing, teacher assessments are subjective, and in order to identify weaknesses overall, the Ministry requires a more objective instrument of measurement. Naturally, the teachers will feel - as those in England do - that they too are under scrutiny. But in the present crisis, the teachers perhaps have to understand that the aim of schooling is not to protect them, but to educate children; if any of them are derelict in their duties, or if they are simply unable to teach effectively, then it is important that the Ministry of Education can identify them.
However, there is a caveat. In our climate of distrust, and more particularly given some of the statements and actions emanating from the Ministry of Education during the recent teachers' strike, there is a fear on the part of the teachers - not totally without foundation - of victimisation. If it wants co-operation from teachers in the programmes it is introducing to improve performance standards in schools, then it has to do some hard work to mend fences both with them, and with the union which represents them. Unless it adopts a less confrontational approach, and learns techniques of dialogue with our educators so it can work with them in the process of education, then any reforms it seeks to introduce are doomed to failure