Problems with secondary entrance exams in T and T
Posted: December 19, 2003
The past development of examination for entry into secondary schools from primary schools in Trinidad and Tobago needs to be looked at if one is to get a clear understanding of the situation which exist at present. Further, having examined the thinking and rationale behind the entry examination for moving students from primary level to secondary level, one would be in a better position to identify it strengths and weaknesses. A historical perspective needs to be the starting point in this regard.
The abolition of slavery in 1834 afforded the opportunity for ex-slaves to attend schools to be educated. The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Mico charity were the providers of education. Dr. Eric William stated that at the end of 1880 there were a total of 96 schools operating in Trinidad 3 secondary, 2 normal model schools, 52 government primary school and 39 assisted primary schools. There were 332 students in the secondary schools- 80 at the Queen's Royal Collegiate (QRC), 142 at the College of the Immaculate Conception (CIC) and 110 at St. Joseph's Convent. By 1949 Governor Lord Harris established the secular or non-religious government schools called the ward schools where emphasis was placed in reading, writing and arithmetic. The established schools at that time, especially the denominational schools, catered for the educational needs of the offsprings of the planters. Those planters who could have afforded it, sent their children back to the metropoles to be educated.
The coming of the East Indians added another dimension to the whole question of education. The Canadian Presbyterian Mission founded by Rev. John Morton in 1868, apart from its obvious religious function, served as a means of educating the East Indians. Thus the Indians were largely educated in institutions separate from the rest of the population.
The main examination in those days for entering the secondary school system was the College Exhibition. This was the forerunner to the Common Entrance Examination. The College Exhibition was started in 1872 and awarded annually placement to a handful of 'brilliant boys' to Queen's Royal College and St. Mary's College. Further, it was inevitable that examinations would play a most important role in the selection system since demand of secondary education was consistently greater than the supply. Also mention was the greatest anxiety to parents the College Exhibition caused. Considerable social and economic returns were also brought to those who succeeded and it became a powerful channel of upward social mobility for a few black and coloured youths.
The award of exhibitions, independent of the government, was a trend followed by new secondary schools, private or public, in the early twentieth century. Eventually non-government exhibitions to secondary schools out-numbered the College Exhibitions, thus opening up a new era in educational opportunities for blacks and coloured children, and also for white children. The College Exhibition system grew from an uncertain indulgence to an expected privilege by the start of the twentieth century and finally a political right in the 1930's.
Throughout the 1930's there was an expansion of elementary schools in Trinidad and Tobago. By 1939 there was a dual system, that of both government schools and denominational schools. There was a conflict between the churches and government as it related to control over the running and managing of schools at that time. This conflict led to the expansion and growth of the education system. The church and the government were anxious that through education new generations should be socialized into accepting the new social structure and values of society.
The gradual growth of government interest in and control over schools was realized by the 1950s at the primary level. Dr. Eric Williams, like Governor Charles Warner, governor between 1839 and 1869, saw denominational schools as obstacles to integration of the racial divide that existed in Trinidad society. The opposition of the Roman Catholic Church remained intact. It led movements to restrict the expansion of government control of education. In addition the rise of the Canadian Presbyterian Christian churches as well as the entrenchment of Hinduism and Islam help maintain the strong grasp which denominational schools had on education.
The emergence of Dr. Eric William and the People's National Movement saw the introduction of the Common Entrance Examination in the early 1960s. This examination replaced the College Exhibition. In was intended that it would be the sole instrument of qualification for secondary education in Trinidad and Tobago. It was not intended to be a pass or fail examination and the number of awards depended on the number of secondary school places available at the time. According to the Transformation Magazine of March 2000, as the competition for places in the secondary schools increased, inadvertently spurred on by parents, an education system was created where the examination superseded the syllabus. In some schools children were taught with the sole purpose of passing the examination. As a result of this, necessary basic skills were neglected.
This examination, for all intent and purposes, was a multiple-choice examination. The multiple choice tests were in English, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science. The exception being the Composition aspect of the examination. Students were then placed into secondary schools on the basis of their order of merit and their parents' choice of school. A large percentage of the candidates selected the older denominational schools and a few selected government schools as their school of first choice. This was so since the older denominational schools such as Queen Royal College and St. Mary's College were still considered prestigious schools.
The Common Entrance Examination system had its drawbacks. The Express highlighted some of them. It stated that anxiety, depression, pains, fever, delirious behaviour and severe panic attacks were some of the effects the Common Entrance Examination had on students. The Trinidad Guardian under the heading, 'How School System Destroy Children' alluded to the fact that in Trinidad and Tobago we were systematically destroying our children. It stated that the problem began with the process of taking choices in the Common Entrance Examination. It added that before the child wrote the examination he/she with the assistance of parents or guardians had to select by priority the school that they wished to attend. This was the beginning of the psychological catastrophe.
The child was considered a dunce if he passed for a junior secondary school or a school which was not considered a prestige school, according to the Trinidad Guardian. It added that the child told himself that if he were bright he would not have been placed in a junior secondary school. Furthermore, when the child's confidence was destroyed, at such a tender age, it was almost impossible for that child to develop into the brilliant scholar that he was capable of being. Leesa De Silva in her letter to the Editor in the Express of November 29th, 1999 stated that she was a Trinidadian living in Kansas City, Missouri. She expressed that she could not imagine subjecting her 12-year old daughter to a test that would determine if she was as intelligent as the rest of her age group and then to have the result posted in the nation's newspapers. She added that it was the epitome of mental abuse and an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. " If the country says that I was a failure then it must be true and so I would behave accordingly." The Express linked the crime rate with Common Entrance Examination. It stated that the Common Entrance Examination was a tragedy which was responsible for a lot of crime in the country. It further stated that ten thousand (10 000) children were thrown on the dump heap because places could not be found for them in secondary school after the examination. Additionally, these children were placed on the garbage heap with no hope. Finally the newspaper added that the late developer was not catered for.
It was because of the failure of the Common Entrance Examination system that a Task Force chaired by Mr. Clive Pantin, and included Dr. Anna Mahase, Dr. Janet Stanely-Marcano, Mr. Anthony Garcia and others, was set up to look at the removal of the Common Entrance Examination. The Task Force in its findings found that anxiety and stress remained a feature of the Common Entrance Examination and those immediately concerned with it. It also highlighted the sense of unworthiness and disappointment which became a feature of not only those who failed to gain a place, but also of those who were successful but failed to gain admission to the school of their choice. It further stated that due to the importance of the examination and due to a lack of acceptable alternatives to public secondary education the examination began to exert an inordinate influence on the primary school, the curriculum and teaching practices. Teachers were often very restricted to that subject which would be tested at the examination. It was found that students, even those who performed well in the examination, entered secondary school without the necessary basic preparation for secondary school work. It found that nearly fifty percent (50%) of the students who wrote the Common Entrance Examination appeared to be semi literate and innumerate.
The Task Force recommended, among other things, that there was need to develop a Secondary Entrance Examination which would test the students' level of competence in the key areas of English, Mathematics and Written Composition. It stated that this needed be done in a manner which would indicate readiness of the secondary education programme. Further to this, it stated that Science and Social Studies should be omitted because of the unfair influence they had on the final result in the Common Entrance Examination placement of students and because they were unsatisfactorily tested. It also recommended that a Continuous Assessment Programme (CAP) should become an integral part of the School System. The Continuous Assessment Programme was to be used to determine the student's readiness for promotion.
The Education Policy Paper (1993 2003) stated that it was necessary that promotion within the primary school be guided by norms of attainment as recommended in the 1985-90 Education Plan, accompanied by a system of periodic assessment to ascertain the extent to which the standards set were achieved. It stated that that measure would ensure that meaningful learning took place within the primary school. Further it recommends that continuous diagnostic testing and remediation should be built into the primary school system. Those tests together with the administration of standardized tests at significant stages in the primary school, (Standard 1 and III 1994 1996 respectively), the Common entrance examination itself could increasingly be converted into a national attainment test It further stated that placement at the secondary level could then be on the basis of both continuous assessment and a national examination.
In 1999 the Government took further steps to bring an end to the Common Entrance Examination by the year 2000 and to provide Universal Secondary Education (USE) by 2001 . The government stated that by improving the quality of education at the primary level children would be adequately prepared for entry into secondary school. The aim was to ensure that every child from the primary school capable of such an undertaking regardless of race, creed, social status or geographical location be given free secondary education. Improving the quality of primary school education, in particular, and raising the level of literacy and numeracy skills among primary school students would enable them to be better prepared to make use of the opportunities provided at the secondary level. In April of 1999 the Cabinet appointed a seven- member Universal Secondary Education Supervisory Education Committee. The Committee headed by Mr. Clive Pantin had the task of implementation of the 1998 Report of the Task Force on the Removal of the Common Entrance examination and to bring about Universal Secondary Education by 2001.
The Secondary Entrance Assessment, a system of education which prepared the child for entry into a secondary school and included mechanisms to determine when the child was ready and where he or she would be placed, was the major aims of that new system of education. The Continuous Assessment Programme and the Secondary Entrance Examination were considered as important parts of the new system. According the Universal Secondary Education Project Implementation Unit December 28th 1999, the implementation of the Secondary Entrance Assessment would provide a link between separate elements of the Universal Secondary Education in Trinidad and Tobago. These separate elements were Continuous Assessment Programme and the Secondary Entrance Examination. According to a brochure entitled Parents as Partners issued by the Ministry of Education , the education system was being transformed at every level to ensure that the children were well equipped with the skills they would need to succeed as adults living in a new age. It stated that the students' ability to adapt and to continue learning were essential. It further stated that the Secondary Entrance Examination would assist students' readiness for secondary schools by testing their skills in Language, Mathematics and Problem-solving. It alluded to the fact that there would be no multiple-choice questions, a feature of the Common Entrance Examination. Additionally, it stated that placement in the secondary schools would be based on marks scored on the Secondary Entrance Examination, the available of places in their school of choice, availability of secondary places in their education division and taking into account the 20 percent (20%) provision granted to denominational school under the Concordat. It also noted the Continuous Assessment Programme purposed earlier would not form part of the placement process.
The Guardian of August 23rd 2000 quoted Senator Professor John Spence on the removal of the Common Entrance Examination. He stated that the Common Entrance has not been abolished only its format has been changed. He questioned the idea of placing some children who would normally have failed the Common Entrance in Model Schools. He also was not pleased with the choice of reading books for those children. These books included the Ugly Duckling, Chicken Licken and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He felt that the model school was symbolic of the absolute failure of the primary school system. The then Minister of Education, was reported to have said in the Trinidad Guardian September 9th 2000, that many children were wasted and as a result there was no need to delay the implementation of the Secondary Entrance Examination for another year. She believed that under this new system not a single child or mind would be lost. She alluded to the fact that under the old system approximately 10 000 failed and were denied the opportunity of a secondary education. Further, these children as a result had no means later in life to support themselves financially.
The President of the Trinidad and Tobago United Teachers' Association (T&TUTA) has been very critical of, as he called it the 'mad rush' to implement a system which though excellent in theory needed to be implemented gradually. He further stated that the new system sacrificed quality of education for political purposes. Other concerned voiced by people in education included the expected overcrowding in secondary school, the lack of facilities, teachers shortages and unsuitable curricula to cater of the need of these children. Senator Kenneth Ramchand stated in the Express of April 6th 2000 that the new Secondary Entrance Examination was worst than the first. He said that any examination would stress out an 11-year old and his parents. Additionally he felt that the primary school was not for cramming of subjects but for allowing children to do things, discover things and to be themselves.
The Universal Secondary Education Supervisory Implementation Committee Project Unit at the Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre noted some of defects of the new system of education. These included lack of adequate staff support since there was an apparent need for more in-depth planning. Inadequate parental support, since the majority of today's parents were themselves academically and financially challenged, meant they could not effectively meet the needs of their children. Additionally, because the emphasis was now on the slower child there was the possibility that the especially brilliant pupil would not realize his/her full potential. Further to this, parents would treat Social Studies and Science as unimportant subject areas on the timetable and this in turn would be reflected in the child's approach to this schoolwork.
Since the philosophy of education, according to Education Policy White Paper (1993 2003), lies in the full development of the potential of every child, secondary education for all has its place in today's technology advanced world. The task however is to ensure that the special needs of all children and properly catered for. Included in this, of course, is catering for the needs of the differently abled. According to the white paper and I quote, " 80% of children who have special education needs identified by referral, and assessed by the Child Guidance Clinic are receiving inappropriate education and their Special Education needs are not being met in the existing education system."
The present Secondary Entrance Assessment Examination has a significant part to play in the transition of students from the primary school system into the secondary school system. The main tenants of this examination still hold. These include assessing the primary school child's state of readiness in Mathematics, Language and Composition for the secondary school system. The child who has attained the required standard is more likely to benefit from the secondary system.
The introduction of Secondary Education for all has both its merits and demerits. On the one hand, the child knows that having sat the Secondary entrance Assessment Examination, he/she would be afforded a secondary education. The stress, level of frustration and tension which were associated with the former secondary entrance examinations are now eased for both the child and his parents. The child, as well as the parents, is now in a more relaxed mood since whether or not he does well in the examination his secondary education is assured.
On the other hand, mediocrity is created. The child is no longer spurred on to be highly competitive. The discipline which was needed under the previous system is not seen as necessary. The effort made by the parents to ensure that the child knows his work and if need be take extra lessons after school is now laxed.
Further, a strain is now placed on the secondary system to cater for the more than 10 000 students who would have previously failed to gain a place in a secondary school. To this is added the inadequately trained staff to deal with these children who have obviously not attained the secondary standard of education. Some not even mastering the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. This results in frustration for both teacher and pupil. This leads to truant behaviour on the part of the pupils. This is followed by early remittal by the student from the secondary system. Even if the child remains in the system until he sits the Caribbean Examination Council Examination (CXC), his attaining a full certificate is hardly likely.
The Secondary Entrance Assessment Examination, even with the implementation of secondary education for all, has its relevance and should not be abolished. The question should be asked whether it is better to send 10 000 students into a life of hopelessness or afford these students a place in a secondary school where they still stand a chance of succeeding. For the system to work effectively, however, there needs to be modification. This should include ensuring that the child has attained the required level for entry into the secondary system before he moves on. This can only be attained with the necessary support system is in place. The Ministry of Education needs to implement a continuous assessment programme such as was intended under the Continuous Assessment Programme (CAP). This assessment has to be done at all levels from infants to standard five. Attention should be paid here to the theory of Multiple Intelligences since 'paper and pencil' measures are not always 'intelligence fair'.
The Ministry of Education needs to deploy sufficient specialists to work along with teachers throughout the primary school system to diagnose and remedy all dysfunctional students in the system. Eye disorders, including dyslexia, hearing impairment, abused children, poorly nourished children, those with low self-esteem and other areas which negates against the proper functioning of children in the system should be addressed. Additionally, there should be strict adherence in the primary schools system that all promotion through the system be based on merit. Proper record keeping and documentation at all levels throughout the system for quick and easy reference are also necessary. This documentation must highlight the child's strengths and weaknesses including corrective measures attempted in correction of the latter.
Accompanying the above should be the aim at the primary level to seek the holistic development of every child. Every child has the ability to learn, and they vary in natural abilities. As such, the school system should provide programmes which are adapted to varying abilities and which provide the opportunity for the child to develop differing personal and social useful talents.
The child of the twenty-first century and beyond needs to be fully appreciative of and capable of making full use of the technology at his disposal. He needs to possess critical thinking skills in problem solving along with ready access to the volume of information via the internet and other media to make positive changes in his life. To the end, the education system needs to facilitate this by providing opportunities for the child to bring to fruition these goals. Further to this, the primary system of education must be so structured that the full potential of every child is realized. This means of course that the teachers in the system must make use of the concept of multiple intelligences, constructivists approach to learning, the importance of cooperative learning and other learning strategies. They need to constantly upgrade themselves to ensure that they are always aware of educational developments and new and innovative techniques. The 'chalk and talk' method of the last era has no place in the classroom of the 21st century. Children need to discover, to experiment, to do research and to use their ability to think and reason. If these issues are addressed from the time the child enters the primary school he would be in a better position to take advantage of his secondary level of education.
Campbell, C. (1992). Colony & Nation- A Short History of Education in Trinidad and Tobago.
Campbell, C. (1996) Young Colonials A Social History of Education in Trinidad and Tobago 1834 -1939
Express Vox Volume 5 #1 of November 12th 2000, p. 4.
Express of March 31st 2000, p. 11
Guardian of August 23rd 2000, p. 5.
National Task Force on Education Education Policy Paper (1993-2003) White Paper
Huggins, N. (January 03, 2003) Programme Officer- Universal Secondary Education Project Implementation Unit
Parents as Partners - Universal Secondary Supervisory Implementation Committee Project Implementation Unit, Rudranath Capildeo Leaning Resource Centre
Report of the Task Force for the Removal of the Common Entrance Examination, p. 12
Trinidad Guardian of September 28th 1999, p. 13
Williams, E. (1962) History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago
by L.H.Richard I