From GSAT to PEP

There have been shouts of joy and jubilation in some corners of the society at signs that the Ministry of Education may do away with the annual grade six placement test, in its present form, and renew efforts to find a more ageappropriate and suitable exit examination.

However, let us not celebrate as yet, since the Ministry of Education’s decision may probably be a case of exam name-swapping and not much more.

The proposed changes to replace the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), including a name-change to the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) test, is a good example of the more things change the more they remain the same.

For some reason there are many of us who believe that if we do the same thing repeatedly, in the very same manner, we will eventually get a different outcome. (Some call it insanity. However, in the real world, this just does not happen.

Our tendency, as a society, to treat the symptoms of our social problems by applying band-aid solutions, while overlooking the root causes of the problem, is rather myopic. We continue to seek th ill effects of this and must see this method of analysis as having outlived its usefulness.
Where are we coming from?

The problem with Jamaica's education system lies in its historical beginnings. We have inherited an education system from the British which catered to two opposing social classes; that is, the children of those who are economically better off, and the children of those who are less fortunate.

As a result of this discriminatory system we have encouraged and presided over an elitist education system which is largely underfunded, and which delivers different outcomes to the two categories of clientele.

Prior to the introduction of the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), in 1999, Jamaica experimented with the Common Entrance Examination, which was introduced by in 1957. Unlike the Common Entrance Examination, which was a pass or fail test, the Grade Six Achievement Test is a placement examination where all students leaving primary and/or preparatory schools are placed in a high school of their choice, or by the Ministry of Education, depending on their scores.

With the proposed changes, as outlined by a senior Ministry of Education official, students who will do the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) examination will have the choice to select two of the five high schools they wish to attend. It is proposed that the remaining three schools will be selected by the Ministry of Education in a cluster-based geographical zoning-type system.

However, here lies part of the problem. We all know that not all high schools in Jamaica are of the same quality. Both parents and students know that it's very unlikely that all three high schools in each cluster will be of same standard and quality.

One can envisage that students from more depressed areas are going to be at a disadvantage when the residential zoning of students in schools is employed. We all know that many of the better performing schools are not located in the inner-city areas, and therefore we are going to have more inner-city students attending the school in their community, thus robbing them of the well-needed exposure to a different subculture and way of life.

At the same time, those students who are from more wealthy communities will end up at the better performing schools which, frankly, are in the more affluent areas. Who do they think they are fooling with these cosmetic changes? Clearly this is a case of déjà vu, all over again — and I mean redundant.

This proposed change will not alter the public's perception that some schools are just better than other schools. Parents are still going to gravitate towards what in their opinion are the better schools. Parents and guardians are still going to shun what in their view are the failing schools.

Finding The Good

The proposed Primary Exit Profile examination has some advantages, one of which is the fact that only content done in grade six will be tested, unlike the Grade Six Achievement Test where content from grades four to six was examined.

This will no doubt ease the burden on many primary school students who have had to recall a significant amount of content in order to get good scores.

Students would also have an additional two months to prepare themselves adequately since the PEP examination would move from March to May. Additionally, the possible inclusion of a community service component to the replacement examination would be a great addition to the education system, especially in light of a decline in volunteerism within the society.

However, it can be argued that, at the same time, the Primary Exit Profile is likely to open itself up to more manipulation by unscrupulous individuals who can fix a candidate's profile to ensure that the candidate ends up at one of the better performing high schools. There is no avoiding this possibility of human manipulation. It only changes form.

Where Do We Go?

The problems of the Jamaican education system are not rooted in the examinations we have designed, copied and administered over the years. The texts are not inadequate. The teachers are not all incompetent. We need a transparent education system; one in which all our students are given the same quality of education regardless of location of school and socioeconomic background.

What we need is vision lest we perish.

Wayne Campbell

[email protected]

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