SSEE Social Studies Editorial
Stabroek News
April 4, 2004

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This week thousands of eleven-year-olds across the country will file into examination centres to sit the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE). They will not be the final batch to do so, but there will not be many others following on their heels, as the Common Entrance is to be phased out within a few years. As had been reported at a much earlier stage, it will be replaced by more, not fewer, tests called 'assessments,' although whether the new arrangement will turn out to be an improvement on the old one remains to be seen.

Leaving that issue aside, however, there are some lessons to be drawn from the experience of the existing SSEE, and how it has influenced methods of teaching and, in the case of at least one subject, the content of the syllabus itself rather than the other way around.

Paper I in all four subjects - Mathematics, Science, English and Social Studies - has been presented in a multiple choice format for many years now. While it is no doubt acceptable for Mathematics and possibly Science to be examined in this way, it is clearly problematical in the case of English and Social Studies.

Without question, however, the biggest problems remain with the Social Studies exam. It comprises a variety of subject areas - history, geography, government, economics, civics, plus an indeterminate category which for want of a better word might be called values. With such a grand sweep of knowledge to be covered, it is hardly surprising that no topic benefits from any detailed attention to stimulate the imagination of a child and promote his or her interest in learning.

But even that is not the real difficulty. The real difficulty is that in the case of an affective subject like Social Studies, where there are sometimes no absolutely right and wrong answers, there are only a limited number of topics which lend themselves to the multiple choice treatment. As such, therefore, there is not an infinite variety of questions which can be asked in an exam. The Ministry of Education no doubt has a bank of questions, and while it may make variations on a theme, its examiners will find it very difficult over the extended time frame of several years to ring the changes to any great degree. In addition, it is enormously difficult where Social Studies is concerned, to create four options in a question where logically speaking, only one answer must be correct.

What has been happening over the years is that extra-lessons teachers in particular, have assembled the questions which have appeared on past exam papers, and have drilled the children in the answers. In other words, Social Studies at the primary level is not about education and discovery; it is about rote learning in order to pick the 'correct' option in a multiple choice exam.

And exactly what is the correct option? If one were to judge by the text books on sale in the bookshops for SSEE Social Studies, our children are being fed an enormous amount of misinformation on topics where for once we actually can say definitively what is right or wrong. Nowhere is that more true than in the fields of history and human geography - one Common Entrance publication, for example, blithely assures us that there were actually Spanish plantations here in the past. Even the Ministry's own texts are a long way from being above reproach. So what is the point, one wonders, of the children learning material which is sometimes inaccurate in any case?

The limits on the questions which can be asked in a multiple choice exam, have inevitably placed limits on what is taught in the classroom, no matter what the syllabus actually says. For the past three years at least, one imagines the pool of questions has become even more restricted because of the changes to Guyana's constitution. Since one supposes that the Ministry of Education has not been in a position to circulate updated material to all the schools on the reformed electoral system and central government structures, it would hardly be fair to set questions on these topics. Hinterland schools especially, as well as those in some rural areas which have limited or no access to newspapers, would be at a particular disadvantage if the examiners did so. One presumes that some of them, at least, may still be teaching about the Supreme Congress of the People - to give but one example - because that is still in the text books.

For the final years of life of the SSEE, and while the Ministry ponders the content and form of its proposed 'assessments' in the primary school, it should really drop the Social Studies paper. No one will lose. There will be less cramming for children to do; there will be more time available to teachers and pupils to work on the other subjects; there will be less confusion on the part of teachers about whether their charges should be coached to learn what is wrong, because that is what is in the text books and that is what the examiners might be seeking; and there will be an alleviation of stress all round.

The Social Studies exam as presently structured is of no benefit to the Ministry either, which could hardly use it as a tool for accurately measuring any meaningful skill. Surely it is time this particular examination was quietly laid to rest.