May 2019

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Students wrote the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) last month, as usual amid an atmosphere of hope, dread and destiny.

The standard Government test assigns pupils to secondary school places in a starkly inequitable system: “prestige” schools with a tradition of achievement, alumni support networks and (often) religious tradition, and State-run institutions that lack basic resources and at times seem to mirror society’s worst social ills.

The annual test, often the subject of contention, was the subject of discussion on March 29 at “Among the SEA believers: The Price We Must Pay”, the professorial inaugural lecture of Jerome De Lisle, Professor of Education Leadership.

Parents and educators filled the School of Education Auditorium to capacity to hear Professor De Lisle’s findings on the SEA. Attendees looking for answers went away with enlightening data – and plenty to ponder.

De Lisle stressed the importance of good data, noting that international agencies often find “there isn’t enough information” on education in Trinidad and Tobago.

He painted a sobering picture of the SEA landscape: inherent systemic inequities. He said the passing criteria varies by district, with higher cut-off scores in rural districts; the problem of “false positives and negatives,” where scores do not reflect the true abilities of candidates; and, the “shadow education system” of extra lessons for those who are able to afford it.

He felt the exam was “a very weak tool” for assessing students, and asked “Can it tell you what you want it to tell you?”

He asked whether it was right to subject children to such existential pressure, facing a test with often life-changing consequences: “Why do that to an 11-year-old?”

He likened the exam to an obstacle, asking, “is this education, really? Putting up barriers for the children?”

Dr De Lisle earned his PhD (Education) from The UWI and has worked on several IDB-funded consultancies on testing and reform for the Ministry of Education. He has worked in measurement and evaluation at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, and is well regarded internationally for his research. He has also published several qualitative studies and received an award from the American Educational Research Association this past April.

At the lecture, De Lisle gave a multimedia presentation with graphs and images illustrating his points.

One slide showed a child’s drawing, expressing their feelings on the test. In it, a humiliated pupil faces a teacher whose hand is a ruler (symbolising the threat of punishment). It was captioned: “I felt that SEA was killing, as there was nothing I can do to get out of it.” In the background, other children laughed or expressed a similar sense of fear and hopelessness.

De Lisle said students “experience stress but many do not communicate”. He encouraged parents to encourage them to “share their emotions” and suggested they keep journals.

He said there were many “myths” around the exam culture, and that these “myths become policy”.

He said we believe valorised schools are better, that prayer in these schools plays a role. We believe that certain students deserve to attend vilified schools: “What happens when teachers believe that if you pass for a ‘Junior Sec’ you are not bright?” he asked.

“Are we demonising students who go to these schools?”

He described the “elitist worldview” that causes us to prize academic intelligence above other kinds of aptitudes: “Where is technical-vocational education?”

In one study cited, 6,000 candidates got the same passing mark, “but we don’t have 6,000 spaces” in better schools.

De Lisle’s research showed no correlation between socioeconomic status and academic performance, but a strong link between wealth and placement in valorised schools – with poverty concentrated in low achievement schools.

“Do we trust the system? Is the system blind?”

His suggested countermeasures included making the exam harder in order to spread out scores; more focus on developing “grit and resilience” in students; pumping resources into failing schools to make “every school a winner”; more classroom-based assessment; and, emphasising “authentic learning” rather than rote learning.

But De Lisle cautioned there is no quick fix. “Even if we tinker with the SEA, expectations, practices and beliefs may remain.” He cited Hong Kong, which removed 11-Plus in the 1970s. “People are still exam focused,” but now, classroom assessment is emphasised.

“People just love exams.”

Gillian Moore is a writer, editor and singer-songwriter.