Dr. Fraser- Point of View
June 15, 2007
Of exams and Queen shows

With the news that Common Entrance results are out one expects to see today large numbers scrambling for the weekly newspapers. I am never sure why it generates such interest. Had the interest been shown by parents one could argue that it was about seeing the name of one’s child or children in print, but it is much broader than that. Is it to see what the children of their friends or relatives had done or what a particular school or community has done or is it just a commess sort of thing?{{more}} I have always been fascinated by this. There is however no doubt about the keenness demonstrated by parents and guardians who on Common Entrance day take their children to the respective venues and spend the whole day sitting outside to make sure that everything is okay. To many parents it is a do or die situation. They have invested a lot in their children’s education and are leaving nothing to chance. There is a lot of stress and nervousness and I often wonder to what extent this is transferred to their children.

It is with this mindset that an article in the British Observer newspaper caught my attention. It was captioned, “Call to Ban all School Exams for Under 16s”. This was based on a study undertaken by a body called the General Teaching Council that was submitted to the House of Commons Education Select Committee. This call for a ban was based on the stress that it claimed was caused by over testing. It occurred to me reflecting on our local situation that at least the Common Entrance examination causes a tremendous amount of stress for parents and consequently for children. The Council called for a fundamental and urgent review of testing and made some other interesting comments. It suggests that exams are not able to improve standards and that pupils are left demotivated and stressed and that it causes bored teenagers to drop out of school. It levelled other criticisms at the system. In its view teachers were being forced to drill students to pass their exams instead of giving them a broad education and cited cases of teachers even helping children to cheat. In its report it states also that, “The range of knowledge and skills that tests assess is very narrow and to prepare young people for the world they need a set of skills that are far broader.”

Although this is based on the British system and environment some of the issues raised are not new to us. In fact the idea of continuing with the Common Entrance examination is questioned since in any event students are guaranteed a place at one of the secondary schools. What the examination serves to do, however, is to help in determining the schools to which the students are sent and this is where the parents come into the picture since they want to ensure that their children go to the best schools available. All sorts of ideas have been floated about the process and the way forward. The idea of zoning students is one but the problem is that with huge discrepancies in standards and resources this cannot be easily acceptable so that students placed in the top 500 stand a chance of getting into one of their choices while those below can perhaps only hope to exert pressure on their parliamentary representatives creating in the process a number of problems, double standards and contradictions.

There is no denying the need for evaluation or assessment of students performance but the question is, are exams the only or best method of assessment. The British report raises the issue of students being drilled by teachers and implies that the whole objective appears to be to get them to pass the exams rather than to provide them with a broad education. The point is made too about the narrowness of the range of skills that exams test and the issue of stress levels given the limited opportunities that are involved in our situation. I do not know how much, if any research at all, is done trying to show the relationship between performance at Common Entrance and at the secondary learning institutions. One expects that if the emphasis in preparing for the Common Entrance is on drilling that this will be reflected in the performance of students when they get to the secondary level but then there is also the charge that drilling features highly in that system. Really what this shows is that there are serious issues in education and the emphasis is not only on providing access but there are other issues that are involved if we are to give meaning to education. Here is where Parent Teachers Associations have a role to play for the education of their children or those in their care must go far beyond ensuring that they are able to continue their education on to the secondary or even tertiary level. What kind of education is their child getting and is it only about passing exams and being certified, are questions that should occupy all of us.

The issue of the nature of our education took on even greater meaning when I read the editorial of the News newspaper last week under the caption ‘Disappointing’ followed by its piece on “Interview that broke contestants’ aspirations’. Since I am not a fan of beauty shows the issue was completely new to me. It must have been a real spectacle to have generated two pieces from the News. The paper described the contestants as making a meal of the interview segment. Interestingly we are told that the questions emerged from the contestants own biographies which not only suggest that they were not written by them but that the writers had little meaningful discussion with them about the contents. The other questions were apparently based on national, regional and international issues that have been featured regularly in the news- issues such as global warming, the impact of the World Cup on SVG and the benefits of Carnival to the country. The point was made that the winner was to have as one of her prizes a scholarship to one of the campuses of UWI and therefore there were certain expectations that came with that.

There are likely to be different explanations for the performances of the young ladies but I wonder to what extent it reflects the nature of the education we provide to our young people and also the general level of discussion within the society. But education and an individual’s development are not limited to what one gets from a formal system. Education is a continuing thing and the individual has certain responsibilities that go with it. The authorities have to ensure that nothing like this happens again and must re-examine their method of selection, given the level of expectations that the society undoubtedly has. Surely there are broad societal issues also at stake.