Monday, April 22, 2024

FORUM ON EDUCATION: Common Entrance Exam in review


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THE ISSUE of the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Exam (commonly known as the 11-Plus or the Common Entrance) – has been, some may say, examined, analyzed and evaluated to death. Yet it is still here. Certainly reminds one of the Red Plastic Bag classic Mr Harding. Perhaps therefore we can envisage a new and updated version of the song that contains a line, something like: “Go to school our (young) children must; But Mr Harding is the 11-Plus. Some people mean they must learn That Mr Harding can’t burn. Now we understand why . . .” (apologies to RPB.)
Recent newspaper articles and comments have, as usual, accompanied the annual advent of the Common Entrance Exam. Some comments tend to refer to the unfortunate pressure imposed on the young children by their parents at this time and to the panic that seems to accompany the exam.
So much pressure that some children become physically ill and are made to feel that, at eleven years old, their entire future is hanging in the balance.
Neither of these situations – the pressure nor the panic – can be beneficial to learning nor to the young students, nor be of much value to their growth and development.
The questions thus arise: what is the purpose of the exam? What exactly does it contribute to the child’s learning or academic development? The exam is delivered through a standardized test, and is based essentially on a fixed and restricted body of knowledge – and in two subject areas only.
It does not therefore seek to inform on the learning potential within each of the young minds or to test for different strengths, aptitudes or interests. Its structure is essentially a one-size-fits-all exam.
But each child is different – and each one does matter. Yet the Common Entrance does not address this psychological and learning reality – nor how best to meet the challenge of dealing with each child.
We claim to subscribe to the Howard Gardner concept of multiple intelligences, yet we subject all students to the same one-size-fits-all exam. We promote Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, which clearly assert that individual children progress through (and between) these stages at different rates, yet we expect all and each of our students to be at the same stage in their development at the of age 11-Plus.
This seems to reflect a certain level of intellectual dissonance – if not hypocrisy. We adhere to, and liberally quote, the constructivist theories of learning by Lev Vygotsky and others, and then we refuse to test the child on what he or she has learned or can do. Instead, we test them only on specific bits of knowledge that have been taught in class.
There is no attention whatsoever paid to the child’s ideas, skills, or learning challenges; no testing for their levels of critical thinking, reasoning or problem-solving skills.
Recently, during a visit to a bookstore, my attention was drawn to two textbooks, entitled, respectively, Mathematics For 11+, and English For 11+.
But there was no evidence of any texts with titles such as Citizenship Skills For 11+, or Problem-Solving For 11-Year-Olds. But surely these two latter are critical aspects of a child’s development and an indispensable platform for their further growth, – academic, social and emotional.
A further concern in all of this is the attendant academic segregation of our secondary schools that persists largely as a consequence of the exam. And one wonders if, and why, the Ministry of Education seems to further legitimize this segregation.
In the DAILY NATION of January 17, an official of the ministry, at a town-hall meeting, is quoted as referring to “a top group of four schools”, and another group of  “six schools that make up a second band, below which (my emphasis) are five more schools”. Then after that, according to the officer, there are “those that fall in line”.
This ministry official was clearly enunciating a hierarchy of schools. Is this the Ministry’s official position? Does this not further exacerbate the sense of pressure imposed on the young students?
The allocations in the aftermath of the Common Entrance Exam are equally problematic. There is, for example, some difficulty in explaining to the rational mind how it can be more educationally sound or efficient for young children, at age 11-plus, to be criss-crossing the island to get to a school – when all schools follow basically the same curriculum towards the same CXC exams.
One would also think that it would cost much less of taxpayers’ money to transport students from St Lucy to a school in St Peter or St James than to a school in Christ Church, St Thomas or St Philip.
This article was written/submitted prior to the results of the recent exam being announced. I take this opportunity to encourage all the students to fully utilize their learning opportunities, and to wish them success in their future academic endeavours.
• Anthony Griffith is a former senior lecturer in education, UWI, Cave Hill. 


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