CXC's July exam proposal seriously flawedTuesday, May 26, 2020
It defies all logical explanation that after a meeting between the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) and ministers of education of the representative territories in early May CXC could issue a press release stating that the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations 2020 sitting will be scheduled for July. Given the furore that has greeted this decision throughout the region it is patently evident the decision failed to take into account the many critical concerns that had been widely ventilated before the meeting.
Like the ill-fated West Indian Federation, Jamaica was the first to distance itself from the decision, even going as far as considering the ludicrous option of having a foreign examining body administer its exams in 2020. Jamaica reconsidered its decision only last week and has since agreed to the July proposal. Meanwhile, the teachers' unions in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Barbados have issued comprehensive press releases which have been openly critical of the July proposal. The Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT), the umbrella organisation for all teachers' unions in the region, based in St Lucia, has added its voice to the ever-growing barrage of protests. The CUT, like its member unions, has described the July proposal as “unfortunate and reckless” since “all the issues surrounding the administering of these exams have not been addressed”.
The issues raised by various stakeholders throughout the region are far from frivolous and one can only wonder how CXC could have ignored them if they were, in fact, raised by the representative ministers of education. These concerns have all focused heavily on the timing of the proposed exams and the safety of our students in an exam environment that must conform to the 'new normal' health protocols. In the interest of the safety of both teachers and students, the various teachers' unions have advocated a later September start for exams. The focus on timing and health have placed another critical issue, namely the validity of the said exams, on the back burner. Although the issue has been raised, it has not been given the attention it rightfully deserves.
CXC's proposal to use only Paper 1 (multiple choice) together with the students' school-based assessment (SBA) or internal assessment (IA) grades to assess them is seriously flawed. This is simply because this proposal does not in any way cater for assessment of the critical skill of 'the use of knowledge' in a Paper 2, which has been the standard over the years. To compound the issue, CXC has been woefully silent on the final weighting for either Paper 1 or the SBAs and IAs, thereby making the entire issue of validity of the 2020 exams all the more dubious.
In addition, one has to pose the very pertinent question: How does CXC propose to correct the students' SBAs and IAs under the restructured examination format? Rather than the traditional requirement of five SBA samples per subject for each school, CXC is now demanding the submission of all SBAs. What new plan does CXC hope to put in place in such a short time frame to correct SBAs a and IAs from each candidate? This is question is especially important in the subject areas of English A and mathematics, where the quantity of SBAs would reach formidable proportions since both subjects are often compulsory. Does CXC plan to employ additional moderators and markers given the tremendous increase in volume? What provisions will be made for the requisite training of such new moderators and markers in such a short time frame to guarantee the necessary quality assurance in the marking of these SBAs?
It is a monumental task, to say the least, and stakeholders must feel confident that CXC is equal to the new challenge that it has set for itself. CXC could have easily considered a modified Paper 2, where the questions would have been standardised and so make the marking process easier. With SBAs and IAs there is no such standardisation as each student focuses on a different area of research. Already there is an ever-growing narrative that the initiative to correct all SBAs and IAs is nothing but a sham or window dressings on the part of CXC. If this narrative increases in popularity it certainly will undermine the final grades awarded by CXC under this new arrangement and bring the burning issue of validity to the fore once again.
The most worrying aspect of CXC's July proposal is its undue emphasis on Paper 1, which simply tests knowledge. I, like many other teachers, was stupefied when I learnt of the proposal. It is no secret that CXC recycles the multiple choice items that it uses for the various subject areas. It is for this reason that CXC does not allow teachers to take away Paper 1, nor does it circulate the said paper after the completion of the exam. I, with some 30 years of teaching experience, have never seen a Paper 1. Despite this security measures adopted by CXC over the years, there is a sizeable number of teachers who, by fair means or foul, have in fact acquired such multiple choice papers. They continually drill their students with these papers and have even been brazen enough to use them as mock exams. Given these circumstances, how valid can any CXC exam be if it uses Paper 1 as a principal means of assessment in awarding final grades? Candidates from schools that have strictly adhered to CXC's security arrangements over the years will be placed at a serious disadvantage over candidates from other schools where those arrangements have been flouted. How can CXC, even with the slightest modicum of integrity, insist on an exam in which Paper 1 is only one of two components by which students will be assessed? Such an exam cannot be deemed valid, even if one were to stretch one's imagination to its ultimate limit.
It is nothing short of amazing that in the face of the multitude of bona fide concerns, ranging from safety to validity, that CXC has chosen to go full speed ahead with its misguided proposal for July exams. Here I wish to ask the simple question: Who controls CXC? Don't the respective territories make annual contributions to its very functioning? How then can CXC so flippantly disregard the legitimate concerns of stakeholders in its contributing territories?
In the same vein, I humbly ask: How can the ministers of education of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados — which have the lion's share of candidates sitting these exams — not use this advantageous position as leverage to ensure that these genuine concerns are in fact addressed by CXC? It would appear that the tail is wagging the dog.
It would also appear that CXC has other considerations at the core of its July proposal that makes it hold on to it so steadfastly in spite the pertinent questions raised about the validity of the restructured exams. However, CXC is yet to articulate its rationale for July exams to the relevant stakeholders, so we are left only to assume. Is it that CXC is so obsessed with the issue of time that it is willing to sacrifice the integrity of its own exams in the pursuit of it?
Will our students die of trauma if the exams are postponed to September as has been advocated in so many quarters? If other reputable examining bodies, like Cambridge, could temporarily shelve their scheduled exams in the face of the COVID-19 crisis what prevents CXC from following suit? Will CXC accept the liability if some students contract COVID-19 in an exam environment?
CXC must seriously reconsider its rigid July proposal in the face of a crisis that has not yet dissipated in some territories, most notably Jamaica. In other territories that have just embarked on 'phased reopening of their economies', no one can predict with any certainty what will be the outcome. An early start of CXC exams will certainly be jeopardised if these outcomes are unfavourable. If CXC is charged with the responsibility for an area as critical as education it must exercise due diligence in the discharge of that responsibility.
Is it not better to be cautious regarding the health of students, invigilators, and teachers by opting for a later start rather than an earlier one? Is it not better to delay the proposed exams and assess our students properly rather than administer early exams wherein the instruments of assessment are grossly defective?
As I write this letter, The University of the West Indies (The UWI) students are preparing feverishly for exams which begin next week. The UWI, like CXC, has gone full speed ahead with its plans for “open book exams”, which students will do online. The students have been given time limits varying between one to four days to complete each exam. Just imagine that! At the tertiary level, at our most-esteemed educational institution, academics and administrators have implemented an exam proposal just to allow students to graduate or proceed to the next level all in the overriding interest of time. How will the degrees of the graduating students of this period compare with those awarded in previous years? No one seems willing to consider delaying exams in the face of a crisis which is akin to a war. There are no bombs, guns, or bullets here, but there is an invisible enemy that is equally lethal. One is left to wonder what would have been the decision if the region was, in fact, engaged in actual warfare. The UWI initiative must not become a virtual model for other educational institutions and examining bodies in the region.
CXC cannot afford to compromise its standards or the welfare of our most precious resource in the interest of either time or money. Our minister of education informed stakeholders on Thursday, May 21 that the decision regarding July exams can only be rescinded by a meeting of all the representative ministers of the member territories and CXC. I, therefore, urge our minister and Mia Mottley, chairman of Caricom, to call such a meeting with the utmost dispatch. It is abundantly clear, even to the most casual observer, that the issue of validity of the proposed exams was clearly ignored by our decision-makers at the initial meeting in early May.
No institution should ever compromise its integrity in the interest of time. A new meeting will allow CXC to at least salvage some of its integrity which has been seriously tarnished in the relentless pursuit of its proposal for July exams.
Miguel Browne is a head of department and high school teacher in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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