Fri | Oct 23, 2020

Editorial | Critical tasks at hand for Fayval Williams

Published:Sunday | September 27, 2020 | 12:12 AM

It would be surprising, and something bordering incompetence, if the education ministry couldn’t match a national and school-by-school performance in this year’s Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) CAPE and CSEC exams against pre-exam predictions. Should such an analysis not be available, Fayval Williams, the new education minister, ought to waste no time going about an overhaul of the ministry.

Such an eventuality would perhaps be fortuitous, providing Mrs Williams an opportunity to signal the start of new directions in, and approaches to, education in Jamaica, ahead of the report by Orlando Patterson task force on the issue, and before her co-option by the bureaucrats of the ministry.

Having a clear handle on what results Jamaica expected in this year’s CXCs could prove important, given the simmering regional controversy, including here, over the tests scores. This ought to have been anticipated, given the circumstances of the exams.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students across the Caribbean lost several weeks of instruction ahead of the tests. Then, the exams were delayed. Further, the structure of the exams was varied. There was no essay-type paper. Outcomes, therefore, were based largely on students’ performance on multiple-choice tests and their school-based assessments (SBA).

‘Valid, Equivalent and Fair’ Grades

Wayne Wesley, the CXC’s registrar, said that these adjustments wouldn’t affect the integrity of the exams, insisting, in a message to stakeholders, before the results, that the grades would be “valid, equivalent and fair” and comparable to what a candidate received in previous years. “The trends in teacher predictions over the previous years will be used to determine if the grade awarded to the candidate is fair,” he explained.

Nonetheless, several students in Jamaica, and elsewhere, have questioned their grades, triggering calls for a review of the results. Jamaica’s education officials initially characterised the complaints here as being among “a few of our students”, whose concerns will be addressed in their best interest. But Minister Williams subsequently joined the chorus for the reassessment, a move whose credibility would be clearly enhanced if it is backed by ministry data suggesting that something might be amiss.

This newspaper has no evidence to impugn the integrity of these exams or to question the competence of the CXC. Yet, the regional breath of the complaints can’t be summarily dismissed. And, as we said, they were entirely predictable.

Given the environment in which the exams were held, the teachers and parents of talented and promising students who didn’t get the grades expected were bound to be suspicious. The methods employed by CXC would be open to question.

Further, this summer’s fiasco in Britain, when algorithms were used to award grades in the GCSE in A-Level exams, the equivalents to CSEC and CAPE, would no doubt have pre-primed suspicions about CXC’s modified exams, although the circumstances of the two were quite different.. The UK’s algorithm disadvantaged poorer students from schools without big reputations. In the end, the results produced by the algorithms were thrown out and substituted with grades initially provided by teachers.

Against this backdrop, we expected our education ministry to be ready with national and school profiles and performance predictors, to be matched against the CXC results. An early presentation of that kind would help stakeholders to a measured deliberation on credibility of the outcomes and lessen any likelihood of people being led astray by mischief-makers. It is not enough for the bureaucrats to merely present raw data, without saying how they stack up against predicted performance. Indeed, this is the kind of approach, whether the news is good or bad, that builds trust and credibility in the system. It is what we expect from Minister Williams, rather than the anodyne takes and spin favoured by her most recent predecessors.

The point is, Jamaica has a crisis in education, the rectification of which has to include the telling of cold, hard truths and big, bold moves, even though these aren’t the norm for the bureaucrats at Heroes Circle. As someone with a background of data and analytics, Mrs Williams will have to make her experience count.