Minister of Education Priya Manickchand announced the National Grade Six Assessment results on Friday, accompanied by some preliminary analysis of what the figures implied. The Assessment, of course, still contains some anomalies, one of which is the inclusion of a small proportion of marks from the Grades Two and Four Assessments when computing the final result, an arrangement which is neither fair nor rational in circumstances where it is used for the placement of the top 1% of candidates. Even where it is not used for placement purposes, there is no need for it; a secondary school teacher reviewing the educational history of a new student will want all three sets of assessment figures to compare, with the last uncontaminated by the transfer of marks from the first two.
Then, of course, there is the major anomaly of the Social Studies Assessment, which in terms of content is not only seriously outdated, but also inaccurate in parts. Ms Manickchand told the media that the pass rate in this subject area remained on par with previous years, although the girls had shown an improved performance. One can only muse over whether it says anything about our educational achievement that the girls have shown improvement in mastering flawed information as against their counterparts last year. One can only say again – as has been observed before in these columns – that children would suffer no loss if the Social Studies paper in its present form was eliminated altogether from the assessment complement.
The Minister laid emphasis on the significant improvement in the English results, although she indicated that the Maths results – but not the Science ones – had gone in the other direction. She also said that over the period 1994-2014 there had been improvements in the pass rates in all the subject areas. One is not quite sure, of course, what all of this means, since in the first place, it is not raw scores which are being compared.
One would also have to ask whether there have been syllabus changes over the last twenty years, or changes in the structure of the exams which would make direct comparisons with earlier years problematic. Furthermore, how has the inclusion of a small proportion of marks (accounting for 15% of the total) from two other assessments affected the pass rate in recent years? Prior to the introduction of the assessment system the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination was a stand-alone exam.
Then there is the critical question of not how the high fliers, but how the whole cohort fared in the Grade Six Assessment. In the days before Ms Manickchand’s tenure, when Mr Shaik Baksh was the ministerial incumbent, the public was sometimes given a fuller account of what the results signified. The current incumbent has shrunk from doing this, however, and so we only have the impressive marks of the top 1% to go on, and generalities about the pass rate in the four subject areas. But would the Minister or the Chief Education Officer kindly inform us exactly how many children did not ‘pass,’ and exactly how bad their failure was.
Education is far too important for the public only to be exposed to feel-good information, and former Minister Baksh, at least, should be held up as an example for his frankness in this area – albeit intermittent. However, his staff did one year supply details of how badly an alarming number of candidates had performed, suggesting that they were not really functionally literate, since some of them clearly did not understand the questions or else could not read them at all. This information formed the basis for strategies to address the literacy problem in schools.
So, will Minister Manickchand now ask her Chief Education Officer to give a fuller account of the results and how many candidates passed, and what conclusions one can draw prima facie, from the scripts of those who didn’t pass.
Up to this point critics of the Ministry of Education have concentrated on the fact that it was pupils from the private schools who dominated the top ten placements. Given the small number involved here, this arguably may not be significant. Having said that, however, one should not be surprised by the growing numbers of private school children accounted for in the top one per cent of successful candidates. The Minister has put this down to the screening of pupils by the private educational establishments, but it seems more likely that money is the main dividing factor between public and private.
There will of course be parents who are making great sacrifices to send their children to a private school, but these parents are more likely to come from the ‘professional’ classes or the ‘middle class,’ and as is well known from studies elsewhere, children from middle class homes do better educationally speaking, than those who come from less fortunate backgrounds. In addition, of course, private schools probably attract better quality teachers than the public system, many of whose teaching staff are seduced by the financial attractions that ‘extra lessons’ have to offer, and who do not do the kind of teaching that they should in the classroom during normal school hours.
What the Minister has not revealed since she took up her post is what the future of the assessments is likely to be. The original idea was that when universal secondary education was achieved, the National Grade Six Assessment would cease to be used as an exam, and together with the two earlier assessments, just be employed as a basis for assessing the progress (or otherwise) of an individual pupil as well as the system as a whole. In other words, there would be no competitive exam, and the children within the catchment area of a given secondary school would automatically go there.
Now that the Ministry of Education is pushing hard to ensure that every child will have a secondary school to attend, could it say what the plan is for the current ‘senior’ secondary schools? Is it the intention to retain them for children of special academic ability, say, and to continue to utilize the Grade Six Assessment to winnow out the top one per cent? Perhaps the Minister would consider holding a press conference to answer some of the questions the public has about current education policies.