Are standardized tests establishing and raising standards of education? Are they impeding on education by narrowing the curriculum? Can a single score on a standardized test really measure if students have learned and should this single measurement be used to make decisions that may chart the course of a student’s life? These questions and many others are a part of the ongoing debate of the use of standardized tests in education reform. The debate centers on the uses and unintentional consequences of high stakes testing on students, teachers and ultimately the society in which we live.
A standardized test is defined as a test that is administered to a group under the same conditions which includes test instruction, environment, time and scoring procedures (Moreno 2010). Slavin (2003) adds that the scores can then be used for selection and placement, diagnosis, evaluation of student progress, school improvement and accountability. The uses and misuses of these scores however, have deemed standardized tests as a double-edged sword.
There are six standardized tests that are administered in St. Vincent and the Grenadines; three at the primary level, two at the secondary level and one at the post-secondary level. During the primary years, students at Grades 2 and 4 take the National Diagnostic test while at the secondary and post-secondary levels, tests are administered by the regional examining body, Caribbean Examination Council (CXC). The Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Level Competence (CCSLC), though not offered by all schools, is taken at third form while fifth form students take the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams. Post-secondary students sit the Caribbean Advanced Placement Examination (CAPE) (Information Technology Services Division, 2018).
As the name suggest, the Grade 2 and 4 tests at the primary level are diagnostic and based on the national curriculum (Information Technology Services Division, 2018). These test are administered in the first term of the grade levels and are offered in English and Mathematics. They are aimed at the enhancement of the teaching and learning process. The tests were initiated to have some instrument to measure student’s performances prior to the Common Entrance Examination (CEE), now replaced by the CPEA. They were also intended to address the poor numeracy and literacy levels in the primary schools and to make schools more equitable in student performance.
Advocates of standard testing would argue that these diagnostic tests are a necessity if the long term goal is to improve the quality of education. As indicated by Chapman and Synder (2000), scores can give teachers valuable information which can then be used to target remediation. They also allow for cross-national comparisons and so will allow policy makers to effectively target educational resources such as books, equipment, trained teachers and support services, with priority to low-achieving schools and regions. As such, these low-stakes test can be used ensure that students receive a fair and equal chance of attaining a sound primary education upon which they can build.
Results from subsequent exams however, suggest that the National Diagnostic tests are failing in their intent to improve the literacy and numeracy levels of students throughout the nation. This is seen in the trend in the poor performance particularly in Mathematics at CPEA (See Table 2). This begs to question the extent to which the results are used to guide remediation. Since these exams are purely diagnostic, they should also be administered at Grades 3 and 5. The results of these can then be used to determine if the remedial strategies implemented were effective and would allow for them to be improved upon before students sit the CPEA. Greater involvement of Education Officers will also be needed. More frequent visits to schools and continued dialogue with teachers will allow better monitoring to ensure that strategies are properly implemented. In addition, challenges can be communicated to the ministry and measures undertaken to solve them. The preparation and administration of the additional tests will however incur extra costs and would need to be factored into the national budget. Nonetheless, addressing this issue of literacy and numeracy at the primary level should take precedence as it has the potential to eliminate many of the problems experienced in post-primary education.
The CPEA was introduced in 2014 as a replacement of the national CEE. According to Caribbean Examination Council (2016), CPEA assesses the key literacies of all students exiting the primary school system. The focus is on the literacies that are common to all primary curricula which are needed at the next level. These include Mathematics, Language, Civics and Science literacies. The regional assessment aims at assisting with the quality measures in the primary system and offers a common measure across schools and territories of the region. The CPEA is assessed both internally and externally with the internal component comprising of a project, book report, portfolio, practice can do skills and self-assessment. The external is more traditional and comprises entirely of multiple choice questions. The internal and external components account for 40% and 60% of the overall assessment respectively. The results of CPEA are used by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to place students into secondary schools across the nation.
The introduction of the CPEA has shown a steady increase in the pass rate of students compared to its predecessor whose pass rate was 55.74% in its culminating year (Table 1). The country also recorded a 2% increase in the 2018 sitting (. CPEA has seen many rural schools, who otherwise were performing poorly on the CEE, now taking top positions. This may be due to the internal constituent of the assessment which experts claim is more representative of what a student has learned than what they score in a single sitting of an exam which tends to test superficial thinking (Meier and Knoester, 2017). The skills orientated alternative assessments that make up the internal component of CPEA are deemed much more valuable to determine if standards are met. Being able to take 40% of the mark into the exam also reduces the chance of poor performance that may have otherwise resulted due to debilitating test anxiety or unforeseen circumstances that may have occurred on the day of the sitting.
Table 1: The Percentage Pass Rate of Pupils by Gender in the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment Examinations 2014-2017. Source: Educational Statistical Digest of St. Vincent and the Grenadines 2016-2017
Though the overall pass rates and performance of rural schools have improved, students continue to perform poorly in Mathematics (Table 2). As recommended, additional tests at Grades 3 and 5 should be administered to ensure that students acquire the necessary skills to foster easy transition into the secondary system.
Table 2: The Percentage Pass Rate of Subjects by Gender in the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment Examinations 2014-2017. Source: Educational Statistical Digest of St. Vincent and the Grenadines 2016-2017
According to UNICEF Office for the Eastern Caribbean Area (2017), with the attainment of Universal Access to Secondary Education in 2005, all students sitting CPEA are guaranteed a place in the secondary system. The School Selection Policy allows the top 500 students to be placed in their school of choice while the others are placed according to geographic location. It is not surprising that the choices of the overwhelming majority are the St. Vincent Girl’s High School and the St. Vincent Grammer School as they top the ranking based on CSEC examinations. The intake capacity however is between 120-150 students each and so the majority of students are still placed by the MOE.
UNICEF Office for the Eastern Caribbean Area (2017) adds that nationals are of the impression that already disadvantaged children of low socioeconomic status living and attending schools in rural areas may not have access to the same quality of education and opportunities to learn as those living in or attending schools in the urban regions. The report adds that there is a strong perception that the best-trained teachers and instructional equipment and materials are placed in the urban schools. Yet, regardless of social status, geographic location or inequality within the school system, all students are measured and placed by the same standard of the CPEA. Kohn (2000) argues that disadvantaged students tend to perform poorly on standardized test. Unfortunately, this may mean that already disadvantaged students from the primary system are placed in disadvantaged secondary schools while students from higher socioeconomic status take up positions in the “better” urban schools. This test therefore can widen the gap between social groups which education in itself is intending to close. On the other hand, students from poorer backgrounds who perform well on CPEA can be placed in “top” schools. This may possibly open opportunities to higher learning, proper employment and elevation of social status.
If the placement of students into secondary schools based on the results of CPEA is to be fair and not discriminate against students from the rural areas or those of lower socioeconomic status, the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines must ensure that equality is achieved in all schools across the nation. This, as a goal of the government, is a long term process but contrary to what often occurs, results from the all standardized tests should be used as a guide to target educational resources to poor performing schools and regions. Additionally, the implementation of remedial programs in every secondary school is necessary. The involvement of Education Officers as suggested for the primary level will also be needed. This will ensure that weaker students entering the system get the remediation necessary to cope with the demands of a secondary program. The high repetition and drop-out rates seen in Forms 3 and 4 (Table 3) where the demands are greatest are indications that some intervention, which may include remediation, is necessary.
The CSEC exam offered at fifth form throughout the nation also assess performance in various disciplines. It is was developed as a school leaving exam but is also used as an entry exam into higher education (Caribbean Examination Council, 2018). Similar to the CPEA, the exam comprises of an internal School Based Assessment, SBA, valuing 20% of the overall grade. The external assessment is a multiple choice exam weighing 30% and a written exam worth 50%. Additionally, teacher observation is taken into account as an expected grade is sent to the examining body.
The practices seen in the preparation for CSEC and the uses of the results fit perfectly into the debate of standardized testing. It is important to note that secondary schools are considered “good” or “bad” based on the number of subjects they offer at the CSEC level as well as the performance of the students taking the exams. Consequently, many schools aim to enhance their reputation by offering more subjects. While this may cater to the needs of students whose strengths are in that particular direction, the effect is a crammed timetable, with less time allocated to individual subjects. Extra time constraints are therefore imposed on a dense syllabus.
The heavy reliance of teaching by past papers seen within the schools implies that teachers may be “teaching to the test”; teaching what is being tested at the expense of what is not. Popham (2003) claims that this practice shows that importance is placed on understanding the test and not the test material. A narrowed curriculum is the result. On the other hand, where the aim is to teach all the material, the fixation of finishing the syllabus stifles the creativity of teachers, students and therefore the resulting workforce. The MOE must ensure that school administrators adhere to the instructional time guidelines stipulated by CXC. This may mean that students are restricted to 8 subjects during the school hours. Schools may implement evening, weekend or summer programs to cover instruction of any additional subjects that students wish to take. Sole reliance of paid tutoring to do so will only exclude poorer students.
The results of the CSEC examinations are also used to publicly rank secondary schools. Schools performing well are praised while those with lower overall percentage passes are criticized. In addition, schools that perform well have resources pumped into them; a practice that is contrary to the goal of improving standards. Moll (2004) argues that in an attempt to improve scores and enhance reputation, some students are not allowed to take exams. This is evident in the use of in house exams locally called “pre” to weed out students who may otherwise fail and lower the overall percentage pass. Unfortunately, Mathematics and English are often the targets since they record the lowest pass rates. Denying a student, especially a disadvantaged one, the chance of sitting an exam as important as Mathematics or English with the sole intention of raising performance to save reputation is unprincipled. The MOE must therefore make it mandatory that all students throughout the nation sit the Mathematics and English exam. English is particularly important as it is part of the minimum requirement to gain entry into the local Community College (SVGCC, 2015) or land an entry level job. This cost of improving reputation may very well ruin the chances of student advancement. As Slavin (2003) suggests, schools should sort out improved instructional methods aimed at increasing overall pass rates of their students.