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GSAT defence: Retired educators say test not the problem

No need to abolish GSAT, say retired educators

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, June 26, 2012    

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THE man who conceptualised and helped develop the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) and his colleague who worked on it in its formative years and beyond have come out swinging in defence of the controversial examination, saying that there is no need to scrap it.

Dr Fitz Russell, retired regional director of the Ministry of Education who conceptualised the GSAT programme, and Rev Charles Danvers, also a retired education officer, believe that modifications are necessary, but not an outright change of the system.

The defence comes amid calls from across the education fraternity for the GSAT to be abolished, with Education Minister Rev Ronald Thwaites referring to elements of it being akin to the former Apartheid system in South Africa. There was widespread disappointment by many that thousands of students were not placed in secondary schools of their choice.

Dr Russell and Rev Danvers were guests at the weekly Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange held at the newspaper's Beechwood Avenue, Kingston headquarters.

"There is no need to abolish the GSAT programme," Dr Russell told editors and reporters.

"If you abolish it, the question that follows is what are you going to replace it with, and what are you going to use as the basis for evidence about what's happening in the system," he said.

"Even if you don't have an exam, the pressure would still be there. It is not about the test; you need enough places of suitable and available quality. My recommendation is that they separate the processes of placement and assessment. You need evaluation assessment; GSAT is not valid for placement.

"Another question that should be asked is, is what's now happening a valid use of the test? This is the question that people have to answer. The placement issue must be addressed," Dr Russell said.

Rev Danvers, who is also a former assistant director of elections and now an Anglican priest based in Manchester, also trumpeted his colleague's call to keep the GSAT programme, but improve areas of it.

"You don't need to abolish it. First of all, you want as many quality places as possible for children at the secondary level. And so it's to find a way to create enough spaces," Danvers said.

"Remember the GSAT was not originally designed to be a placement exam, it is an achievement exam — what the child achieved at the end of grade six — and that is important, because when you get a profile as the principal or teacher at the secondary level, you get a profile of this child and say this is what the child can do, these are the areas where the child has deficiencies, you [then] know how to tailor your programme," Rev Danvers said.

Dr Russell, meanwhile, argued that nothing has changed much over the last two decades because the space problem has not been adequately addressed.

"The ability to place children now is no better off now than 20 years ago. The issue is not so much the test; it is space availability and where to put the children."

He said that there were schools that were "potentially nice", but nobody wanted their children to attend them. He named Charlie Smith High, Trench Town High, Kingston High, and Haile Selassie High as among the underpopulated schools.

"Important evidence is when a child takes his GSAT and is not placed where he wants to go, the child is threatened with bodily harm; and instead of the child waiting for the parent to inflict that bodily harm, he pre-empts it and does it himself, because a lot of children hang themselves and take poison when they are not placed where the parents want them to go," Dr Russell stated.

He said that when the precursor to the GSAT, the Common Entrance Examination, was being replaced by the present examination officially in 1998, the positives and negatives of both were analysed, and recommendations were made to go with the GSAT as long as certain concerns were addressed.

"... At the time of the study in 1996 we looked at the Common Entrance and the GSAT. We identified 104 negative consequences of the Common Entrance and two positives. We anticipated 78 positive consequences of the GSAT, and no negative. But we cautioned that if we did not resolve the issue of placement in a changeover from the Common Entrance to the GSAT, then all the positive consequences of the GSAT would be eroded and in a few years the GSAT would look just like the Common Entrance," Russell said.

"So predicted, so done, and that is why I say a lot of the people who are criticising the test are not looking at the contextual frame within which the test is operated and the uses of the test are in fact misguided," he added.

"There is testing and there is the administrative function of placement. As a country we have to deal with the issue of placement. How do we educate all our children at (the) secondary (level), so that we can get on with the business of national development, because if we don't do that and we misdiagnose, then we are in trouble," Dr Russell cautioned.

Rev Danvers said that it was critical to address the issue of universal access to education for there to be tangible benefits.

"The GSAT was designed to determine where every child should go once they reach the age. The problem is that universal access to secondary education is not a reality," he argued.

"The problem with the GSAT in its current form is because it is used to move all the children into secondary level education, and persons have a difficultly when their children are placed at certain schools.

"The perception of the lower quality at some levels is what is the real problem. Until and unless there is genuine universal access to secondary level education, we are going to talk forever.

"It's only recently that some of the upgraded high schools have been coming into their own in terms of the society accepting and recognising that they are producing students of quality and worth; for example Ocho Rios High, they fought and started their own sixth form programme and have been doing extremely well for a number of years, but formerly, how many persons would have chosen Ocho Rios High as a choice school?"

"... Unless you are going to revert to a system like the Common Entrance where you screen off a particular number of children and then they are placed in selected schools, you are always going to have this argument. One of the things I wish to drive home to the public is that the GSAT was not designed to place children in terms of high quality or medium quality or low quality schools, it was designed to quantify what students are able to do at the end of grade six," he said.

"This achievement test has now become a placement test and this is the real problem. The GSAT could do with some tweaking here and there. The Common Entrance was never a curriculum-based exam. The GSAT is strictly curriculum-based," Rev Danvers said.

He also believes in zoning to make things easier on children travelling to schools, and their parents who fund their travel.

"I believe in zoning, but not rigid zoning. Look at Ocho Rios High again, you have children who actually come from St Catherine (going) to Ocho Rios to school. Travel time alone and the rigours of that are a lot," he said.

Dr Russell said that Jamaicans should face reality that some schools were underperforming, or failing as described last year by former Education Minister Andrew Holness.

He said that bringing those schools up to par with those that are doing well required more attention.

"It involves a lot of money. It involves a lot of direction. What it does not require is the minister going around and making excuses for them. I hear the minister apologising to schools for being called failing, when in fact they are worse than failures. Some of them should not even exist," Dr Russell said.

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