Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reflections on Jamaica’s Grade 6 Achievement Test (GSAT)

Three of the many books available for GSAT
     The Grade 6 Achievement Test (GSAT) in Jamaica replaced the controversial Common Entrance Examination in 1999. The thinking at that time was that Science and Social Studies should be tested in addition to Mathematics and Language Arts, because the heavy concentration on the latter two subjects in the CEE had led to the neglect of Science and Social Studies. A communication task was also introduced because of the deficiencies of multiple choice testing.
     Several years on, GSAT is once again hitting the headlines. We are told, in the Daily Gleaner, Monday, April 9, 2012, that the Ministry of Education plans to spend $10.3 million to review GSAT with an overseas consultant. Don’t we have the expertise in Jamaica to do that?
     This isn’t the first time concerns have been raised. In August 2008, Dr. Claude Packer, President of the Mico University College, speaking at the graduation ceremony for FIU School of Education’s MSc in Curriculum Instruction, Jamaica programme, said “Too much is taught in the GSAT. It’s too much, too soon.” He said of mathematics that more emphasis should be placed on getting students to understand numbers and concepts. According to The Sunday Observer’s Career and Education, August 10, 2008, the Ministry of Education was at that time reviewing all the programmes of National Assessment and that a broad-based committee had already begun the assessment. Did the committee make any recommendations? It seems as though, if there were any, they were not implemented.
     The real problem with both CEE and GSAT is the shortage of quality places in secondary schools. In theory, GSAT is a placement exam and but when children don’t get into the school of their choice, they and their parents regard them as having failed. However, if parents had no choice but to send children to schools, including new secondary schools, near to their homes the intake of all schools would include students with high scores in GSAT, thus raising the standards in the new schools. It is the pressure to perform to get into ‘brand-name schools’ which puts so much stress on the students and their parents.
Even so, I do think the GSAT curriculum is overloaded with content. Testing work done over three years, in grades 4, 5 and 6, adds to the stress.
     I think the three main undesirable consequences of GSAT are as follows.
     Firstly, it encourages rote learning instead of teaching students how to learn, how to think and to be curious. As Clay P. Beckford said “You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.” Is it really necessary for children to know that the River Ob is in Siberia? Nowadays, many of them could find that information on the internet quicker than I could. Two other pet peeves of mine are the teaching the division of fractions and long division. Who needs to do either in these days of calculators and computers?
     Secondly, much of the curriculum is repeated in grade 7 in secondary school, resulting in boredom, especially among the students who scored highest in GSAT.
     Thirdly, it puts pressure on the teachers in the lower grades to complete the overloaded syllabus in those grades, regardless of whether the children have mastered the content or not. The teachers end up teaching the curriculum and not the children. The less able children get left further and further behind, resulting in frustration and lowering of their self-esteem. The teachers’ time would be better spent ensuring that all the children in their classes function at an acceptable level, while the brighter students can be given enrichment activities and a wide range of reading material.
     The purpose of an educational system, especially at the primary level, should be to ensure that when all the nation’s children become adults, they have a functional place in society. GSAT is clearly not doing that.

1 comment:

Jonathan Senior said...

I agree whole-heartedly. It seems to me that over the years the powers that be have decided that ALL students have similar learning capabilities so that if 10 out of a 1000 students achieve at very high levels in a particularity year, then all students should be able to perform similarly, with the same content, the next time around. And so, we have continuously sought to complicate the curricula more and more each year, effectively challenging the quicker learners, while frustrating the slower ones.