EDUCATION-TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Putting an End to Common Entrance Stress

Avian Joseph

PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 3 1998 (IPS) - Each year thousands of hopeful 11 year olds all across the Caribbean stride into examination rooms with yellow pencils sharpened and apply themselves to sheaves of paper assessing their comprehension, writing and calculating abilities.

Welcome to the Common Entrance Examination, the test that almost always decides which child advances in society and which does not.

The exam is so revered and reviled in the region that parents are known to severely punish their children should they not be awarded a place in a select high school as a result of their test performance and governments have determined to do away with it.

The examination, taken between January and March in most islands has created a population of neurotic children and parents, psychiatrists say.

Irritability, anxiety, depression, nightmares, psychotic behaviour, headaches, fever, vomiting, pains, rashes and unwillingness to attend school, are some of the behaviour patterns which the 10 to 12 year olds display, before, during and after the examination, said one psychiatrist.

But recently Trinidadian Prime Minister Basdeo Panday told the nation that he is committed to putting an end to this situation by the year 2000.

“I now resolve and firmly pledge that by the end of this millennium, the Common Entrance Examination will be history in this country,” he said.

The Prime Minister spoke of ending “for all time the horrific 11- plus trauma, for children and for parents.” He proposed a system of “continuous tracking to evaluate the competence of our students, across the school year.”

This follows an announcement last November by the Education Ministry that plans were underway to phase out the Common Entrance Examination and put in its place the Continuous Assessment Programme (CAP).

A 300-page report of the Carol Keller Task Force on an education framework for 1993-2003 had recommended that after 1998, placement in high schools should be on the basis of both continuous assessment and a national examination.

So instead of one final examination to determine the fate of 11- year olds, children will be assessed throughout the five-year primary school period. National tests, comprising multiple choice and performance tasks, will be administered at the end of each academic year.

It’s a “home-grown system for home-grown needs,” said Janet Stanley-Marcano, Director of Research and Evaluation at the Education Ministry.

She is spearheading the transition from the Common Entrance which has been a feature in most Caribbean countries for more than 30 years.

She said the intention of CAP is to create a particular type of child — “literate, numerate, with the basic technological capability, problem-solving, caring and sharing.”

However, Glenville Taitt, President of the Parent-Teachers Association, left a CAP meeting this week with more questions than answers.

“How? When? Where? What about adequate school places and the availability of teachers?” he openly wondered.

In a bid to address the acute shortage of school places, government in the 1970s built a number of Junior Secondary Schools and implemented a two-shift system. But these schools are considered inferior in Trinidad and Tobago.

This year of the 28,764 students who sat the Common Entrance Examination, there are places available for 20,000 in high schools. Like Taitt, many others are not clear how CAP will solve this problem of space.

Furthermore, Taitt is not convinced that the Common Entrance Examination can be phased out by 2000 and he fears that children now in Standard Three in Primary Schools (8-9 year-olds) will not be adequately prepared for the transition.

The government plans to introduce the pilot phase of CAP in 53 schools, between September this year and 2000.

“Jamaica has moved away from Common Entrance and that is a model we can look at,” said the Education Minister Dr Adesh Nanan.

After 40 years of Common Entrance, the Jamaican government will introduce the Grade Six Achievement Test and the National Assessment Tests next year, for entry into high school. Like Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica also has a problem of inadequate school places.

In many years in the past more than 50,000 students have sat the Common Entrance Examination in Jamaica when there were just about 14,000 available places.

Social psychologist, Dr Ramesh Deosaran appreciates the need to “democratise” the education system but is concerned about CAP not being able to offer to all children “regardless of where they live and what school they go to” a fair chance at a secondary school place.

Opposition Member of Parliament, Fitzgerald Hinds, said the time frame is impractical and described the Prime Minister’s statement as “flippant recklessness.”

To have CAP in place for the new millennium, government is using a million-dollar World Bank loan in the re-training of teachers.

Stanley-Marcano said the aim is to equip the teachers to function more meaningfully in terms of classroom assessment; building tests; collecting information; and the measuring of different skills and competence.

“CAP is a quality assurance mechanism to monitor from day one and take corrective action,” she said.

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