Monday, May 23, 2016

Diagnostic Testing of Basic School Children in Jamaica

Rose Davies
          In the past, the curriculum in Jamaican primary schools tended to be knowledge based with an emphasis on factual information to be learnt by rote rather than a learning-how-to-learn approach. The one-size-fits-all method of imparting information does not allow for differences in learning styles and rates by different children. The result of this approach has been that some children get left behind and turned off education, so at the end of 11 years of schooling too many end up with no qualifications. Some drop out of the system without having basic literacy and numeracy skills.
To address this problem, the Ministry of Education introduced the Grade 4 literacy test to identify children not performing at that level. They were required to have mastery in that test before being allowed to take the Grade Six Achievement Test. Because some children did not do so before being of age to enter secondary school, the Alternative Secondary Transitional Education Programme (ASTEP) was introduced. (See my blog post of March 22) It became obvious to those administering ASTEP that an earlier intervention was desirable. Then came GOILP – Grade One Individual Learning Profile, with children who were deemed not ready for Grade 1 being placed in a separate class.
        With the work of the Early Childhood Commission  over the last 10 or more years, there has been a great improvement in the standards of Jamaica’s Basic Schools. The great importance of early childhood education and early detection of learning difficulties has come to be recognized. After several years of preparation, the ECC on May 10 and 11, 2016, administered its first diagnostic testing of 4-year-olds in over 2000 Early Childhood Institutions, with the purpose of finding out whether a child has a specific learning disability or learning disorder with another cause, or even a behavior disorder, so that appropriate interventions can take place at the earliest possible time.  Interventions will be made by Regional Special Needs Coordinators and Regional Assessment Teams consisting of 2 psychologists and 2 diagnosticians. There is ongoing training of teachers in the area of special education. (See my blog post of April 14)

In the Sunday Gleaner of May 22, 2016, Rose Davies expressed her concerns about the methods of testing 4-year-olds, in an article entitled Cautions on Early Childhood Assessment. I share those concerns. I can understand the aim of the Early Childhood Commission that the assessment be as objective as possible, but as Mrs. Davies points out, that is hard to achieve with young children. Surely it would be reasonable to have in addition some subjective assessment also by the teachers who work with these children every day? Mrs. Davies also expressed concern about the absence of public information leading to the rollout of this assessment.
          In an article entitled  Pressure For Primary School Students - Pupils Face Four Prime Tests In Six Years” by Deika Morrison in The Gleaner of April 25, 2012, she wrote: (highlighting is mine).
Deika Morrison
      “The Early Childhood Commission (ECC), mandated to supervise and regulate the early childhood sector, is about to begin working on a national-evaluation tool for four year olds. They need to be evaluated for real readiness in the main developmental areas - gross and fine motor skills (gross means big movements like running, fine means small movements like picking up things with finger), speech, social skills, emotional skills, brain development and their approach to learning.

          According to the ECC, this evaluation tool will be specifically designed for Jamaican children and meant to identify what kind of support children need to go forward in the primary-school system. The idea is to be able to identify, before they enter primary school, which of the three categories children fall into: 1) need no additional support in the regular school environment 2) need additional support in the regular school environment or 3) need a specialised school environment.
           Chance for intervention
           The evaluation will be timed to allow for a full year of intervention for those lagging developmentally, as well as specialised attention if needs be. The bottom line is that four year olds don't need a four-year-old version of GSAT. If we are to get the maximum return for the necessary investment in early childhood education, then we must have appropriate tools - which we agree on as a nation - to identify the problems and deal with them appropriately.
          It is time for child-centric interventions, like evaluations that can best help children. We don't know when the ECC evaluation tool will be implemented, but we know we don't have 18 years to 2030 for all of our children to fully master the basics.”

In addition to carrying out diagnostic tests with the best of intentions, the ECC and MOE need to educate parents on the purpose of the testing – it is not to label a child as dumb or bright, nor is it to punish a child who performs poorly in a test. It is to find out the best way of helping children to learn and to grow up to become productive, healthy, well-adjusted members of society.



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