August 29, 2003
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A release from the Ministry of Education last week described results in 24 of 31 subjects offered at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) - formerly CXC - as “excellent” in nine instances, and “satisfactory” in the remainder. The nine which produced the “excellent” results were Agriculture Science (AS and DA), Building Technology (Woods), Clothing and Textiles, Electrical Technology, Home Management, Mechanical Engineering Technology, Office Procedures and Music. The rate of passes in Grades One to Three, said the Ministry, exceeded 75 per cent, and if this was extended to include Grade Four, then the figure rose to over 90 per cent.
Satisfactory performances, the release went on to state, were recorded in Agriculture Science (CS), Biology, Building Technology (Construction), Caribbean History, Chemistry, English B, Food and Nutrition, French, Information Technology (Technical), Integrated Science, Physics, Principles of Accounts, Principles of Business, Social Studies and Spanish. In the case of these subjects, the pass rate in Grades One to Three was over 50 per cent, rising to over 75 per cent when Grade Four was included, except in the case of English B and Information Technology.
The first thing that should be noted is that the Ministry only supplied the percentage pass rate, and did not publish the figures for the number of candidates who were entered for any given subject. A one hundred per cent pass rate in a subject like Music, for example, means very little if only one or two candidates have been entered for the exam in the first place. And one suspects that in the case of several of those subjects which recorded “excellent” performances, the entry rate was low.
Secondly, and more important, with notable exceptions, the subjects listed above could hardly be described as core ones. The two crucial subjects - English A and Mathematics - which constitute the best indicator as to how our students are performing, are not listed in either the ‘excellent’ or the ‘satisfactory’ categories. In fact the Ministry was frank in its admission that the results in these two areas were “unsatisfactory.”
More can be inferred from the percentage pass rates for these two key subjects than for something like Office Procedures, because a high proportion of candidates entering for CSEC include English A among their complement, and a statistically significant number enter for Mathematics as well. The Ministry announced that 37.4 per cent of candidates obtained passes between Grades One-Three in English, and 24.8 per cent in Mathematics. If Grade Four is included, then the figures rise to 68.1 per cent and 44.8 per cent, respectively.
In other words, the majority of our students cannot secure even a bare pass in Mathematics, and where English is concerned, only somewhat over a third can boast a level of competence in the language. It is true that something under another third can scrape through with a minimum pass, but that is hardly a cause for rejoicing. It should be noted that for further education purposes a Grade Four is disregarded, while businesses also tend not to categorize it as a pass.
Be that as it may, the point is that it doesn’t matter how excellent the results in Clothing and Textiles, Building Technology or Principles of Accounts are, if we have a school population that lacks a mastery of the country’s official language and is the next best thing to innumerate. How can we possibly say in such circumstances that our students are well prepared to earn a living in the new competitive global era which is bearing down on us?
As the Ministry of Education is well aware, the problem is not a simple one; it remains with us despite the millions of dollars poured into new school buildings and the drafting of common curricula, etc, etc. They have recognized, rightly, that raising the standard of English at least, has to be addressed early in the primary school, although whether all the new proposals for education at that level are well advised is perhaps a moot point.
However, one cannot help but feel that an important factor in the whole equation is the teaching crisis, and that we are paying a dear price for the serious dearth of qualified educators at all levels in our school system. Of all the problems in education, this one is the most intractable, but if the authorities cannot come up with an imaginative response, the English A and Maths results will be little better next year, or the year after, or the year after that. If overall student performance at English A and Mathematics is in order, then Office Procedures will look after itself.