CXC regional primary assessment

Last Tuesday we reported on a one-day workshop held by CXC in Barbados on a common regional primary assessment programme, or what was described as a modified and enhanced version of the Common Entrance exam, which it was hoped could be introduced in all the anglophone Caricom territories. Called the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment, it is already in use in Grenada and is being piloted in selected schools in some other countries as well. We reported Senior Assistant Registrar Dr Gordon Harewood as saying that it was much broader than the Common Entrance as it would help improve numeracy and literacy, would encourage greater pupil and parental participation and extend the range of literacies to be assessed. It was, he said, intended to focus on “assessment for learning, assessment of learning and assessment as learning” – whatever that might mean in practice.

The purpose of the latest CXC initiative is to “mould” the primary education system in the way that the secondary one has been shaped by the CSEC and CAPE exams. We reported too on the acknowledgement that one of the underlying intentions was to support the migration of persons and their children from one Caricom territory to another, since teachers and students would be following the same curriculum programme. With the Common Entrance, it was said, “the child only had one chance at life. This is why this is different. You develop the literacies and you are tested on it over time.”

The assessment would have four subject areas – Social Studies, Maths, Science and Language – and would be divided into two components: internal and external. The first of these would represent 40% of the total marks and would involve a prepared test by the teacher in the four subjects; self assessment; practice can-do skills; a book report; and a project and writing portfolio. The external component, accounting for 60% of the total score would comprise multiple choice tests.

As far as Guyana is concerned, the first thing to be said is that we do not have a Common Entrance exam as such any longer; what we have are three assessments taken by primary age children at Grades Two, Four and Six. The aim is to abolish any form of streaming in the secondary system, so the assessments will function merely as a guide for teachers and the Ministry on the progress of children, alerting them to possible problems in the system, difficulties confronting individual pupils or teaching defects and the like. This has not been fully implemented as yet, because it presupposes that all secondary schools are commensurate in terms of standards, which is not in fact the case. There are still primary tops and community high schools in existence, and while the government’s commitment is to provide secondary schools for all pupils, it will take time to fully implement this. When it happens, the intention is that students should attend the school nearest them.

Whether in reality all secondary schools will be equal when there are enough of them to cater for the full complement of pupils who need placement in them is very doubtful, but that is not the issue here. Similarly, the matter of whether it is the best of wisdom not to make special provision for academically gifted children is not a topic for expansion at this stage. The point is that as things stand the government moved a long time ago from the position that the Common Entrance (now the Grade Six Assessment) should represent “one chance in life” and appears to be ahead of CXC thinking in so far as it has already introduced testing “over time.”

As a transitional measure, what happens in Guyana at present is that the assessments are used as a basis for placing pupils in what are estimated to be the best secondary schools in the country. Most of the marks for this exercise derive from the Grade Six Assessment, although some come from the Grades Two and Four Assessments, which is hardly fair, considering in this instance the intention is to select children on the basis of how they are performing at age 11, not when they were younger. Other pupils are supposed to attend those schools in whose catchment areas they fall, although this has proved something of a challenge to implement with any consistency.

Be that as it may, there are also problems in terms of the structure and content of the CXC proposed assessments where Guyana is concerned. Considering the dearth of teaching skills locally; the topographical challenges in hinterland areas particularly; the fact that in certain parts of the coastland there are large numbers of single mothers working unconscionable hours who have far less time to devote to their children than is ideal, the internal component may simply not be practicable here in its proposed form. Add to that the fact that given the levels of mistrust here, parents prefer external assessments because they feel they are fairer and less subject to personal caprice and bias.

At the moment Guyana already has the four subjects the CXC proposes to include, and while it is likely that in three of those areas (Language, Maths and Science) the syllabuses may be somewhat similar, that is unlikely to be the case in the fourth – Social Studies. It so happens that the current syllabus for the Grade Six Assessment Social Studies is in dire need of reform, but that does not mean the CXC version would be any more appropriate for our primary pupils. By definition, it would have a Caribbean bias, but Guyana’s history, geography and political arrangements are rather unique in terms of the anglophone Caribbean, although it is true there will be other aspects of Social Studies which dovetail much better.

The general principle has always been that the younger children start learning about their immediate environment, and then move outwards from that – which doesn’t mean to say that all knowledge about the Caribbean and the wider world is excluded. It is a question of emphasis, and Guyana’s current Social Studies syllabus, whatever its inaccuracies and deficiencies, includes such topics as well. The CSEC history and Social Studies exams cover the Caribbean, although individual components within them allow focus on individual territories. One cannot help but feel, however, that a Social Studies Assessment at the primary level should be tailored for each individual territory, or in some instances, group of territories, and not be a general ‘exam’.

This does not mean to say that Guyana’s current assessments in the other three subject areas may not be an improvement in terms of their content from the CXC ones, but that is something which education officials here would need to review. However, there is a reservation of a different order about the CXC proposals that is more problematical. As far as the external component is concerned, the format is all multiple choice. The limitations associated with multiple choice were addressed by the Ministry of Education here some years ago, following which a second paper in what is now the Grade Six Assessment (formerly the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination) which required pupils to show their skills in composition and reasoning, as the case may be, was added. In this regard, therefore, Guyana is definitely ahead of CXC in its thinking, although no doubt the Council believes it has covered these objections with the writing requirements in its internal component. In answer, one can only repeat again the reservations about the latter referred to above.

The above deals with some of the questions which could be of concern to the public should it be decided to introduce the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment here. They are, however, practical concerns. Whether in principle we should be seeking to become part of the new arrangement (with modifications) so primary education can be the same across the region, is something which the Ministry of Education needs to speak on, so there can be meaningful public debate on the issues involved.

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