Columns

The GSAT story again?

Education Matters

With Dr Clement T M Lambert

Tuesday, July 11, 2017



A day ahead of the release of the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) scores to parents, the minister of education, Senator Ruel Reid, announced that scores had improved. For the policymakers, it was cause for celebration. For some parents and their children who sat the GSAT, the knots in their stomachs became tighter. After all, if the scores are better, won't getting a place in the school of choice require even higher than usual grades from the candidate?

Amidst all this, the realities on the ground were largely unchanged. The places available and the quality of our high schools did not experience this measurable commensurate improvement with the scores. This then presents another saga in the narrative of high-stakes testing that has prevailed in post-Independence Jamaica.

GSAT or HSPT?

When the GSAT replaced the Common Entrance Examinations in the late 1990s it was heralded as ushering a new paradigm in education. No longer would children bear the weight of the Common Entrance Examinations — which incidentally was far more forthright in its name — in which students had to compete for scarce places in high school. No one really failed the GSAT, and students were guaranteed seamless transition to another school.

Fast-forward to 2017, where the GSAT is poised to be replaced because, above all, it has proven to be a placement test almost in the same vein as the Common Entrance Examinations. The reality is that GSAT might have been aptly renamed the High School Placement Test (HSPT), since this has been the primary function of this examination. GSAT tensions culminate with the placement of students in high schools.

Amidst the placating posturing of creating equal opportunities for all our children, those with experience in education are fully aware that all high schools in Jamaica are neither created nor operated equally. If these schools were operated equally, why would there be the frenzy as I write, and as you read this, even among the 'most informed' of us to ensure that our children get into certain schools?

The placement conundrum

When the GSAT results were released a concerned parent shared her daughter's scores with me. It read: mathematics, 85; communication task, 8 out of 12; social studies, in the fifties; and science and language arts in the forties. The parent was beyond distressed because she thought her child was placed in a school that she considered to be an embarrassment to her and her child, “Man, she feel bad; mi feel bad too,” were her own words.

A close look at these scores created a puzzling question, if this child's mathematics scores are almost double the scores in other areas, how does the placement and accommodation machinery cater to this student's strengths and weaknesses?

Given the state of mathematics in today's system this seems to be a promising maths student. However, will the school she attends have equally promising maths students? Is it that students with similar average scores are placed together regardless of where their strengths and weaknesses lie? Greater analysis of the spread of the scores might be required to make an informed placement.

I hope the assessment that succeeds the GSAT is configured to take account of students' strengths and weaknesses and place them accordingly. Conversely, I hope we equip our schools to better cater to students' diverse academic needs, which can be informed by their performance on these examinations.

Maintaining the status quo

It is amazing that even years after leaving high school people are often still identified with the high school they attended. I was in a state of disbelief recently when I attended a ceremony for newly graduating medical doctors. During the conferring of awards and special prizes the chairperson, in her euphoric tones, would announce the awardee, “...and this doctor hails from the high school located off Hope Road,” or “near Heroes Circle…” this would be greeted by uproarious cheering from the graduates. To be fair, they might be cheering because the other young doctors would have a good idea of who the awardee is. Note that all these individuals would have left their high schools at least five years ago. This speaks to the inequities in public perception of our high schools, the power of GSAT, and the effects of school placement. At this point, I spared a thought for the graduates who sat there whose high schools would not induce this euphoria.

Making it better

There is no doubt that schools that were stigmatised as low-performing non-traditional high schools are making important strides towards improvement. I have visited and witnessed, first-hand, schools which were spurned a decade ago climbing their way out of stigma through inspired leadership, dedicated and innovative teachers and more motivated students. However, this is a slow climb.

Changing the culture of schools, as well as public perception of these schools, requires time. In addition to leadership, innovation and motivation, there needs to be massive infusions in these high schools that send positive shockwaves in the system and catalyse change. More schools will have to be built from scratch, providing conducive physical conditions for students and teachers to operate in. Curriculum reform and teacher professional development will have to place greater emphasis on catering to students with diverse needs. Finally, people in prominent positions need to show equal deference to all schools that educate our post-primary school students.

Dr Clement T M Lambert is a lecturer in the School of Education at The University of the West Indies. He leads the communication & arts cluster and coordinates literacy studies at the bachelor's and master's levels. He is a published educational researcher and consultant and reports on a variety of educational concerns. Send comments to the Observer or clementtmlambert@gmail.com.

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