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New Test of Ability For High School Entry in the Caribbean
By Corinne Barnes
Inter Press Service

     KINGSTON, Mar 24 (IPS) - Thousands of grade six students will be trooping to examination centres next week for tests designed to assess their ability to qualify for entrance to select high schools in Jamaica.
  But, unlike in the past, their promotion from primary to secondary schools will not be based solely on their performance in the test to be held over two days, from Mar. 30.
  Rather, the examination marks the end of months of on-going assessment under the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), first introduced in Jamaica last year, to replace the dreaded Common Entrance Examination (CEE).
   For 57 years the CEE was the method which almost always decided the fate of students. Those who did well were guaranteed a place in one of the select high schools, those who did not were relegated to schools deemed inferior or denied the opportunity of a high school education.
  The examination, taken between January and May in most islands in the region, has been blamed for creating a population of neurotic children and parents.
  Irritability, anxiety, depression, nightmares, psychotic behaviour, headaches, fever, vomiting and unwillingness to attend school were common among the 11 and 12 year old children preparing for the CEE, according to parents and psychiatrists.
  Housing Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, John Humphrey, once famously described it as that ''brutal Common Entrance, which has been branding thousands of young children as failures every year since the '60s.''
  But it was not until the suicide of a 12 year old Jamaican boy, for not scoring well in the CEE a few years ago, that more serious notice was taken of the tremendous strain on children.
  Students, educators and parents throughout the region have long argued for a new entrance test that truly assesses a child's academic ability. So last year, Jamaica took the lead in the region and abolished the CEE, replacing it with the GSAT.
  The Jamaican government described the GSAT as the instrument which would bring equity to the distribution of students to the secondary schools. The government called it a more meaningful way of determining the ability of students.
  Under the previous CEE system, the Ministry of Education would find places in high and comprehensive schools for only the top 30 percent of the more than 50,000 students who took the exam annually. The rest had to make their own way into the technical and all-age schools or in private institutions.
  But last year under the GSAT, the Ministry, placed almost 42,000 children in secondary schools. This year 47,000 students are taking the examination on Mar. 30 and 31. More places have been created for students by upgrading some all-age and junior secondary schools to high school level.
  The new system, while it has been welcomed, has its own set of problems, warn educationists.
  ''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,'' says Errol Miller, head of the Institute of Education at the regional University of the West Indies.
  Miller feels that where students in primary schools do not merit places in secondary schools, they should be placed in all-age or junior high schools.
  Others argue that more needs to be done by the Jamaican government if it is truly serious about reforming the education system.
  Meanwhile the government of Trinidad and Tobago has signalled its intention of following Jamaica's lead and getting rid of the CEE.
  Ten years ago a National Consultation Committee on Education had recommended that the burden on students would be eased if the continuous assessment of students' performance in primary schools was made the criteria for their admission to high school.
  Now the government has decided to implement that recommendation. The CEE is to be abolished next year and replaced by a Continuous Assessment Programme (CAP) which will focus on basic Mathematics and English proficiency.
  ''Come next March, the dreaded Common Entrance will be no more, gone, deposited in the dustbin of history,'' Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, said recently.
   ''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,'' he added.
   According to him, parents will not have to wait until the CEE to ''find out your son or daughter may not be ready for secondary school or should have been helped long ago in Maths or English or in Social Studies or Science.''
   But Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago stand alone in the Caribbean in their willingness to outlaw the dreaded CEE. The other countries are still holding fast to this method of promoting children from primary to secondary school.
   The eastern Caribbean island of Barbados, for instance, even in the face of opposition from some educators, wants to maintain the status quo. Education Minister Mia Mottley said the CEE is here to stay.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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