It’s the best way to describe the months following my last blog post. On top of a very crazy schedule, I was suffering from writer’s block. Trust me; it wasn’t that I lacked a topic to write about. It was the exact opposite. There were too many issues and matters that I wanted to touch and the overstimulation of multiple thoughts resulted in a long-term block. This year was not short of issues and matters that resonated with me. Many of which resulted in several internal mental discussions and in some cases full blown debates. One issue that stomped me on several occasions was the Barbados Secondary Entrance Examination, better known as ‘The Common Entrance’.
Every year, without fail, persons argue for the discontinuation of this examination. Factors for its removal stems from colonialist ties; non-alignment with current educational assessment practices; emotional trauma caused by societal stereotypes and stigmatization of schools in Barbados and the list goes on and on. From the scholastic arguments to the anecdotal sentiments, the debate surrounding this ‘Math, English and Writing’ test continues to make headlines.
Truth be told, this exam is not unique to Barbados, in fact, many English-speaking Caribbean countries, conduct their version of ‘The Common Entrance’. There are some variations with the implementation of the exam, but the concept of an entrance exam for secondary school is not uncommon. Globally, the use of an assessment in school placement is quite common.
Now, before you start to alert your emotions, let me ask and answer the question that you may be itching to ask, ‘What does the Common Entrance have to do with college and university?’ Before some of you gather the pitch forks or even brave the comment section, there are some parallels between this examination and college/university placement that one can draw from. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, while both are relevant to different stages of a student’s life, there are similar themes that cross over. Let me explain. Looking at ‘The Common Entrance’ and college/university placement, one observes three similar themes: 1) Expectation vs Reality; 2) School Hierarchy and 3) Level of Readiness.
Before an analysis, opinion or position can be cleared, I believe that we must compartmentalize the issues. In this blog, I will make an attempt to do so by discussing these themes.
Expectation vs Reality
Both ‘The Common Entrance’ and College/University Placement entail managing expectations. Firstly, the expectations of the student; the expectations of parents; the expectations of teachers; and finally, the expectations of society.
We all have dreams and aspirations. When it comes to choosing a school, many of us have a dream school in mind; whether we are 10yrs old, 18yrs old or even 30yrs old. In the end, expectations are often balanced by reality. The truth is, we may have our dreams, but the outcome is usually based on our actual circumstances. What you put in determines the outcome. Additionally, what you put in is also based on your environment and whether it was conducive for you to be able to perform at optimum. For example, adequate parent support, the right teaching style for your learning capabilities, a safe environment to learn (whether at home or school), the right diet etc. These are just some of the key components that help to determine the outcome.
When thinking of a dream school, we must therefore ask ourselves these main questions: 1) What is our own individual optimum performance?; 2) Are the adequate requirements to perform at optimum in place?; 3) Do our individual circumstances and optimum performance fall within range of our dream school?; and 4) If no, are we prepared and/or able to put in place the provisions required to achieve our dream?
Hierarchy is human. Hierarchy is often used to market and promote, for example, consumer goods, vacation destinations, services etc. With schools there is no difference. Hierarchy exists and it plays a role in determining expectations and in some cases reality. In many cases, hierarchy is a social construct and therefore can be very subjective. Let me explain. School hierarchy is not a product of nature. It is created by human expectations; which varies at both the micro and macro level. A school may rank high or low based on location, facilities, programming, admission cut off marks, fees, student demographics, alumni, achievements or downfalls of its faculty, students and alumni, business and social networks etc.
A number of these factors shape the public’s view of an institution, on an individual and societal basis. This view may vary among different segments of the population due to individual social, financial, and/or sometimes political circumstances. The priority of what determines a top and/or preferred institution will vary from person to person. Additionally, there are systematic measures put in place to solidify hierarchy. When it comes to college/university placement, rankings tend to play a major role in the choice of a student and/or parent. Ranking systems are upheld by both public and private players in higher education, making it a legitimate benchmark for shaping school hierarchy. Therefore, from my observations, there are two types of school hierarchy in higher education: 1) Systemic Hierarchy, which is driven by influential and decision-making entities at the highest level within mainstream society and 2) Social Hierarchy, which is driven by an individual or a group of individuals within segments of the population.
With ‘The Common Entrance’, school hierarchy is upheld through the assignment of cut off marks determined by both schools and the Ministry of Education. However, school hierarchy is also driven and maintained through public perception regarding schools on the islands. Many of the other factors mentioned earlier which shape an individual’s view of a top or preferred school also play a major role when it comes to school hierarchy in Barbados. Therefore, when it comes to ‘The Common Entrance’ and school hierarchy, I ask these questions: 1) Is the concern about ‘The Common Entrance’ based on the process used to determine a school’s cut-off marks or it is based on the school a student is placed based on their result? Or let me make this simpler: 2) Is the concern more about the student’s exam result or where the student is placed?
Level of Readiness
Just recently, I had a deep conversation with one of my parents and ‘The Common Entrance’ debate came up. What they said about the exam resonated with me until now, so I had to include it in this piece. They pointed out, “It is not about the exam, but it is about the journey to the exam“. Now based on the discussion, what I took from their view was that the examination itself was not the problem but there were key elements missing from creating an enabling environment to ensure optimum student performance. This led me to think about readiness and how ready are our students for the next stage of their academic careers at all levels. Readiness within the context of this piece would include: 1) Academic readiness; 2) Financial readiness; 3) Emotional readiness and 4) Physical readiness. These readiness factors all play a role in determining whether a student commences and/or ends studies.
‘The Common Entrance’ was designed to assess and place students into an institution to pursue their secondary level education. The average age range for students to take this exam is 10-11yrs. Note the use of the word average, which suggests that there are instances where a student could younger or older when sitting the exam. Therefore, the level of readiness comes into question. Based on a student’s individual circumstances, all key elements may be in place which could either have them ready to sit ‘The Common Entrance’ before the average age or after the average. Not everyone will be ready at 10 or 11.
It is the same concept when it comes to college/university placement. Completion of secondary school may not equal to being ready for a college/university education. Some students may be ready to progress to a college/university level education before or after the average age for college/university admission. It is all a matter of readiness. Therefore, it is important that persons are assessed at varying stages to measure the level of development that has taken place to improve readiness.
While my parent’s statement was specific to ‘The Common Entrance’, I believe it applies to after the exam and beyond. Education is a life-long learning experience with various stages and levels of development to undergo throughout all life stages. Therefore, while it is critical to ensure readiness to progress to the next level of education; however, it is equally important that measures are in place to ensure a student can achieve success throughout the journey. It always amazes me when after school lessons discontinue after completion of ‘The Common Entrance’. Anyone familiar with Newton’s Laws would understand why I believe that lessons should continue even after the exam. Readiness is fluid and therefore, assessment to determine readiness is always required.
When it comes to readiness and ‘The Common Entrance’ I would like to the pose the following questions for consideration: 1) Is there a need for an assessment when progressing into another stage of learning and development? and 2) Does ‘The Common Entrance’ provide an opportunity for assessment of readiness?
The debate regarding ‘The Common Entrance’ will continue as long as the exam continues to be practiced as a method of assessment and school placement. In my view, most the angst and discontent with the exam is predicated on the three main themes discussed above. While I believe that there is always room to change, adjust and modify, based on changing times and contexts, complete abandonment without a well thought out replacement system can be even more destructive.
The change that is being requested may be valid; however, it is important to ensure that the system to be implemented can meet with general consensus. Therefore, can we improve on the system ensuring that a standardized and inclusive curriculum is practiced by all schools while leaving room for a sector that includes private and/or ‘elite’ schools? Can we preserve what works while building towards an improved educational system without going around in circles?
It all boils down to one simple question: Are we educating for the local market, local needs and demands or are we producing globally adaptable and responsible citizens to succeed beyond 166 square miles?
I am sure that the debate will continue.
Lead advisor at The Student Centre, who is dedicated to making CAREER SENSE out of higher education.
College Recruiting Consultant at Carib Athletes, who is dedicated to guiding Caribbean Athletes to college/university sport programs to fulfil their dreams through competitive sport and education.
Dr. Elizabeth Adey
I am passionate about education and the opportunities I believe it creates for people and the wider society. Education opens doors and facilitates change.
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