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May 14, 2013

Examining Common Entrance Exam, here and beyond

Tue May 14, 2013

Editor: The Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) in Trinidad and Tobago, analogous to the Common Entrance Examination in this country, erupted into controversy when students complained that they had problems dealing with question 35 on the mathematics paper, dealing with ratio and apportionment.{{more}}

According to the Saturday Express on 11th May 2013, the question: “$8.25 was shared between Pam and her sister Rita proportioned to their ages. Pam is 12 years old and Rita is eight years old. (a) Express their ages as a ratio in its simplest form – one mark. (b) Calculate the amount of money each girl receives – two marks.”

This has evoked widespread disquiet among parents, the president of the National Parent Teachers Association and the president of the Primary School Principals Association, thus calling for an enquiry, stating that the topic had been dropped from the syllabus several years ago.

This outpouring of disgust has prompted the Prime Minister to enter the fray, asking her Minister of Education to investigate and demand an explanation from the Caribbean Examination Council, which is responsible for setting the exam, about the controversy.

The three daily papers in Trinidad and Tobago carried a subsequent statement by the Education Minister, stating that ratio and proportion was not dropped from the syllabus, something which principals and teachers seem unaware of.

However, many Trinidadians had themselves expressed their views on the matter on the “morning talk shows.” Some felt that the prime minister’s intervention was nothing more than “cheap politics,” while others were concerned with the method of teaching in primary schools in that country. Some radio personalities lambasted the Ministry of Education about the logic of dropping such an essential topic as “ratio’s and proportion” out of any mathematics syllabus at that level. more so, deriding the education ministry for its rote learning techniques, arguing that students should be forced to think critically, as in this case, and not just regurgitate prepared rote exercise for the Secondary Entrance Assessment.

The whole episode in Trinidad and Tobago, takes me back to St Vincent and the Ministry of Education, as to the way the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) is set. For instance, in the General Paper, students are given six questions relating to music. Some of these questions involve identifying musical notes and their antecedents. The issue here is students in primary school with the exception of private schools, Catholic, and to a lesser extent Kingstown Preparatory are not taught music as part of the primary school curriculum. Hence, why in one year, one tenth of the questions on the General Paper are related to music?

I questioned that said issue with an education official, after being asked the same thing by my best friend of 35 years, “Rudy”, when his daughter queried it with her mother three or four years ago. I was told by that Ministry of Education official that “the Curriculum Unit usually sends out pilot questions pertaining to music to the primary schools.” Is such a measure sufficient for preparing students for such questions? The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of teachers who teach CEE classes cannot identify a musical note on a sheet; hence many will shy away from preparing students for such questions. In addition, if music is not part of the curriculum, why put those questions, in the first place, on the exam? And undoubtedly, students from the Catholic School would have a clear cut advantage in doing those questions over other students in public primary schools.

There are other highly questionable circumstances surrounding the CEE. It is unfathomable to know that one individual in the past was responsible for setting the mathematics paper. Under no circumstance should one person be responsible for setting such an important exam to assess the relevant competence of students in determining their preparedness for the secondary school curriculum. A pool of teachers would best be able to “flesh” out what are the appropriate questions for those students at the Common Entrance level.

As mentioned before, the Caribbean Examinations Council is responsible for setting the Secondary Entrance Assessment in Trinidad and Tobago and a few other territories in region. There is consensus among CARCOM countries that CXC will set such exams throughout the region in the future. This is a very noble and brilliant step in the right direction for harmonizing educational standards in the region. In addition, it should remove many of the inherent structural deficiencies in our education system. However, there is one Achilles’ heel, as it relates to the said examination in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. The sub-regional grouping was fronting for a sub-regional exam from the same source, specifically geared for their students, separate and apart from the larger territories. The issue here is this: why not set one regional exam, to appraise whether the students in St Vincent and the other “OECS” countries can match those from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica, rather than those of their sub-grouping counterparts in St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda and the likes?

With such a large amount of money spent on education in this country over the past ten years (even though with limited results), allowing our students to sit a pan-regional exam, will force them to compete with those from the larger territories, which in itself will help educational officials and the Government to glean whether it is money well spent in the first case or whether our students and teachers are “up to scratch” with their counterparts in these so-called more developed territories.

Hopefully, moving towards a regionally based secondary entrance assessment will mitigate many of those attenuating issues at the Ministry of Education, because “a young mind is a precious thing to waste”.