July 11, 2004
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In our Thursday edition we reported that 62.7% of the roughly 17,000 children who sat this year's Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE) would need remedial work when they moved on to the secondary stage of their education. This revelation was contained in a release from Administrator of the Secondary Schools Reform Project Walter Alexander, after we had put to him that about 11,000 children had total scores of 400 marks or lower.
Mr Alexander explained for the benefit of the public, how the raw scores candidates obtained in the examination were converted to a standardised score according to an established formula. However, one suspects that this was altogether too esoteric for most parents, who really only want to know what the significance of a given final score is - that is, one outside the range of marks required for admission to a senior secondary school like Queen's College. As we reported, it would appear that a total score of under 425, indicated that on average a pupil had answered fewer than half of the questions in the exam correctly, while less than 356 marks meant that on average a candidate had answered under a quarter of the questions correctly. At the other end of the scale, 500 marks or over showed that correct answers had been given to about 75% of the questions.
Mr Alexander told this newspaper that those candidates who obtained less than 400 marks would have to master reading skills in order to be able to grapple with the variety of subjects in secondary school, while those whose Mathematics final score was less than 100 (out of a possible total of 140), had yet to master basic mathematics.
There must be some very disappointed parents out there, who bought textbooks and invested whatever time and energy they could spare into trying to ensure that their children did well at Common Entrance, and who now have discovered that those children are numbered among the 62.7% in need of remedial work. Some of those disappointed parents might even have been induced to part with their hard-earned money on the extra-lessons circuit, and these in particular will be confused as to why their children have not performed better.
With such a high proportion of candidates scoring so low, it is clear that the primary school system is still not delivering in the way that it should. This is despite the funding which went into the Primary Education Improvement Project, and the rehabilitation and rebuilding of all those schools in every educational district in the country. But as has often been observed before, a good teacher with some books under a mango tree will do more for educational standards than a poor teacher in the best appointed, modern school.
This is not to suggest that the school buildings should not have been rehabilitated - far from it; it is merely to say that on its own that is not enough. It is true that the Ministry of Education is trying to place new emphasis on reading skills by testing reading in the first of the new assessments in the primary school. One hopes it will have some effect, although it is far too early to judge as yet. However, it has to be recognized that at the bottom of the problem is the deficit of qualified and/or experienced teachers. A good teacher will inevitably do whatever is necessary to ensure that the pupils read, but if there are too few good teachers in the system, a reading requirement in a test in and of itself may not be sufficient to change pupils' habits and pursuits on a sustained basis. And no one, to date, has come up with an imaginative answer to the problem of the 'good' teacher shortage.
So now we have the prospect of over 60% of this year's SSEE candidates after having spent perhaps six years in the primary school, still not having grasped the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Are the junior secondary schools, the surviving community high schools and especially the primary tops, really geared to providing remedial classes for such a large number of students? How many teachers at the secondary level, whether or not they teach in a full-blown secondary school, are really trained in remedial teaching? One must assume that the pupils most in need of it, will be those in the primary tops, but if all along the school they attended has not been able to teach them basic literacy and numeracy skills, it is hardly likely that the secondary department of the same school will do any better.
The bad news is that without remedial intervention, an unknown proportion of these 11,000 children will eventually be launched 'functionally illiterate' onto the job market. They stand a chance, in other words, of possibly being not just unemployed, but also unemployable, and as such making their own unintended contribution to the cycle of poverty. The Ministry is faced with a huge problem which it probably does not have the resources to address adequately at the moment. What it may have to consider as an interim measure, is assessments in the first form in selected secondary schools, to identify those children who are making absolutely no progress, and who might benefit from special crash remedial classes which could be held in the August holidays, for example.
In the long term, of course, the solution is more qualified and/or experienced teachers in the system. But where that is concerned, the prognostications are not good.