I've been following keenly the many articles in the media on GSAT. Each year we see the same scenario – photos of young students nervously praying before these life-altering exams, and then photos of relief and celebration after the exams are over. Then months later when results are published, we see another round of extreme emotions, tears of joy, and tears of sorrow. It is unfortunate that Jamaican youth have to endure this extreme process, in order to gain access to secondary level education, and worse – it has taken too long for the Government to address the issues and concerns. Not even at the university level is such stress encouraged or considered healthy for learning.
A Jamaica Observer article quoted a young student before sitting the GSAT exam as saying: "...In the exam if I need anything I will raise my hand and ask the invigilator. I will just pray and ask God for the spirit of recall." This is actually quite sad. Learning, especially at that age, should be interesting, exciting, fun. Instead, it is being so serious and intense. Yes, we know GSAT exists due to the limited spaces in traditional and non-traditional high schools. But seeing images of nervous young children bowed together in prayer, right before these exams is a symptom that something is very wrong with the process.
Although the minister of education has ordered a complete review of GSAT, it is odd that they had to hire foreign consultants (detached from the system and culture) at a high cost of $10 million. It would be interesting to know how much GSAT is actually costing the Government to administer as well. All these resources could've been better spent, to help fix the root problem – limited spaces in secondary schools. Will these consultants report anything new? We all know that the GSAT curriculum is intense, forcing parents to get extra lessons for students beyond normal school hours, including weekends. We also know that these exams cause a lot of stress and anxiety amongst students, parents and even teachers.
In addition, these exams are “onesit” exams, and life-altering. Students choose five schools, and many won't get their choices, causing another round of anxiety. If testing is vital for streaming and placing, it should be moderate. They should also look at the alternative of using students’ grades over a period to determine GPA. This could be signed off by teacher and principal, and submitted on forms to regional committees to determine placement since it would be indicative of the students’ ability, aptitude and potential. At the same time, the ministry has to look at viable options to increase intake in traditional schools, especially since that seems to be a real problem. One must consider that the population is also growing.
I urge the minister to re-examine the second-shift policy which some schools can accommodate. Yes, there will be increased facility and maintenance costs, but this would be more feasible and far less than any plan to build new schools which we know the Government cannot afford. There would also be employment opportunities, not to mention easing peak-hour traffic congestion. If funding is an issue, they should tap into the education tax; we don't know exactly how this tax is being used. Either way, the problems of GSAT cannot be ignored.