Should common entrance be abolished?

The night before I just could not sleep. I was tossing and turning all night long and each time I would doze off, then awaken suddenly in a pool of sweat, like I had just been shaken by a nightmare. That morning I could not eat before I left home, buterflies of anxiety fluttering in my stomach. My mom said goodbye to me and my dad, well, he gave me that compelling stare, one that almost caused me wet my underwear. Well, to tell you the truth I actually did, later that morning as I sat there, staring blankly at the exam paper before me. The thoughts were just not processing, I was shivering, yet a cold sweat trickled down my face.
“Try as I may, I just could not recall many of the concepts I had learnt, and I left the exam room in total disbelief. Similar feelings of fear and anxiety would come back months later, the day before the results. And whilst some of my friends hurried to the school for theirs, mine was the longest walk I have taken in my entire life.                     Needless to say, I failed at common entrance that year, received the worst beating from my father ever, something I do not think up to this day I have forgiven him for. My mother was a little more compassionate and got me some extra help with a private tutor who also helped prepare me for round two. Luckily I had a second chance. My feelings the following year were similar although not as intense.                         “However I was able to respond to the questions on the paper more efficiently and secured a pass at common entrance much to my delight, or did I do it for dad? Today every time I recall that first exam as I am doing now, I still feel uneasy.”
The above is a true account from a 37-year-old business woman who recalls the events leading to her sitting the “dreaded” common entrance exam like it was yesterday. For many other persons to whom I threw the question “do you remember the day you sat common entrance?” (in the 20-40 age group) the memories were just as vivid and some did share a few horrifying stories as well. Stories about students being adversely affected by the fear of the exam itself or punishment and taunting after not succeeding and relegated to failures by a system we inherited as subjects of Queen Elizabeth more than fifty years ago. It would seem that even if Independence was granted to us in 1979, the Colonial shackles of an education system which promotes inferiority and elitism is still stuck around the education system legs in many Caribbean islands including Saint Lucia.
A few years ago a leading researcher and physcholigist noted that; “it was very common in the Caribbean to witness children between the ages of 11 and 12 a few days before writing the Common Entrance Exam experience irritablity, depression, high fever, nausea, anxiety and irrational, physchotic and neurotic behaviour. In one extreme case a twelve-year-old boy in Jamaica committed suicide after he found out he had not performed well at the exam. This raised the stakes of the debate to abolish the exam even higher, and today both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have innitiated processes to do away with the CEE altogether.
In Jamaica the grade six assement test (GSAT) was tested as a means to replacing the CEE. The concept was for ongoing assement to replace the heavy emphasis on just one final single exam.
However apart from Trinidad and Tobago which has seriously reformed their education system with regards to both CEE and CXC many of the other islands are holding steadfastly to the CEE which for the past 57 years have decided the fate of West Indian students before they turn thirteen.
In Saint Lucia, in the past, those who did well at Common Entrance, were placed at a Secondary school, with those in the top percentile gong to Saint Mary’s College, Saint Joseph’s Convent and later Castries Comprehensive Secondary School or a school of their choice. Those who “failed” were either given a second chance if they had not turned 13 as yet, or were pushed to standard five or six which often came with stigma and discrimation towards those students who were often painted as outcasts. Those senior primary levels were also common breeding grounds for clandestine teacher and principal to student sexual relationships, more skeletons in an already decrepit Education system. The end result was a large percentage of students leaving school with a useless standard six certificate if they had not dropped out of school.
As part of the ongoing Education reform process in the Caribbean in 1997 Saint Lucia went the way of Universal Secondary Education (USE). This subject we discussed recently with former PS in the Ministry of Education in Saint Lucia Dr Didacus Jules, now CXC Registar (see Weekend STAR March 11).  “USE” according to Jules had been in the making in most Caribbean islands for ten years prior to it being introduced in Saint Lucia.
“St Lucia had been on a very gradual movement towards increased secondary education but the pace and direction changed in 1997. The administration decided that we should instead accelerate that pace and set a definitive time frame for achieving this.  It was recognized that the competitiveness of St Lucia’s human resources would be constrained if we did not provide this upgrading,” Jules told the STAR. “At the same time, one has a responsibility to ensure that the process by which it is introduced is planned effectively enough that the opportunities for success are optimized,” he added. The plan for Universal Secondary Education according to Jules was not just about the construction of new schools but also involved paying attention to the curriculum, improving the training of teachers, strengthening the management of schools, and taking a range of policy measures which would ensure greater success.
The placement debate following Common Entrance where each child is now guaranteed a place at a Secondary School Jules says drew some tension then.  “We had a big policy debate on how to manage placement in USE.  The tension was between preserving parental choice and zoning of schools.  We felt that we could only talk about zoning after the standard for all schools was raised sufficiently,” he informed the STAR.
That process according to Jules would require sustained investment and a major refurbishment plan for schools over at least a period of 5-10 years which would, if the plan was properly implemented, bring all Secondary schools on the island to a much improved standard.
Sadly this has not happened. So now quite apart from the pressures of the exams, there is added injurious constraints on students who are slow learners that they may end up in a school which is seen as a neglected institution.
In some schools this has resulted in a number of students dropping out either from the pressure of discrimination or unable to cope with the heavy emphasis of academics rather than skills and vocational training.
The debate for the abolition of the common entrance exam in Saint Lucia on the basis of some of the above mentioned factors has been ongoing and many educators believe that continuous assessment is the way to go, in replacing the one stop shop exam.
Just last week philanthropist and businessman Michael Walker put forward that with a new computerized learning system for Primary schools the Government of Saint Lucia recently approved, this would be easier.   According to Walker the “In-time” project as it is called, should make children responsible for their own learning and the students’ work can be assessed on a continuous basis through the program.
“So that when we start talking about evaluation and effort and diligence, the computer can give us an absolute print out of everything they have done all year long. So it is not just a matter of working hard for one exam the computer registers day by day how much effort every child puts in. My hope of course is that the common entrance exam will finally be thrown out of the window and we will judge children on their total performance and not just on a single day,” Walker said during the launch of the project earlier this month.
Can we also follow the Jamaican GSAT model? I asked another educator last week who assured me that GSAT was just a trial and that many of the CARICOM member states had taken a policy to adopt a common approach to phasing out CEE and introducing a new system.
The Jamaican Government had described the GSAT as the instrument which would bring equity to the distribution of students to the secondary schools saying that it is a more meaningful way of determining the ability of students.
Errol Miller head of the Institute of Education at UWI has a different view.
“’Automatic promotion from the primary to the secondary level without the requirement of meeting some performance standards is not the best use of scarce resources and sends the wrong signals to our young people,” Miller is quoted as saying a few years ago.
He felt then that where students in primary schools do not merit places in secondary schools, they should be placed in all-age or junior high schools.
However, according to then Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago at the time:  “The Common Entrance Examination has distorted and corrupted our education system. The entire primary school experience has been driven by this awful exam, disrupting the joy of learning and in fact hindering the learning process.”
Ethelene Leonce president of the Primary School’s Principal Association told the Star this week that the last time the matter of phasing out the CEE and introducing a new common process throughout the Caribbean was brought to the table seriously was three year ago. “Back then representatives of all the key stakeholders in education met to discuss the issues,” she told the Star.                         “One of the key things which came up then was that there should be the harmonization of curriculum across countries and that principals, teachers, parents and students needed to be sensitized about those changes,” she explained. Since then Leonce says no document has been brought to her attention as to the way forward.
Retired school principal and former head of the teaching service commission Keith Weeks feels that time is right to reform the system taking into consideration new methods of evaluating students on a continuous basis. “But we must make every school suitable and conducive to accommodate students and the equality in learning that is necessary,” Weekes says. He believes that for Universal Secondary Education to be effective there must be more vocational schools and training opportunities available to students. “These vocational training institutions would cater for less academic children who have God given latent talents which are expressed sometimes when they reach their teenage years and even much later and not necessarily at ages eleven and twelve. So I do believe that we stress too much on just the academics, which I am not saying is not important, it is very important, but we need to create a balance with vocational training, the arts and sports if we are to succeed and have a much improved education system here in saint Lucia,” Weekes stressed.
The Ministry of Education here is still in the process of initiating discussions with other regional education ministries on the subject. No word yet on what methods will be implemented or how soon the common entrance exam will be abolished here, if at all.

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