Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Editorial | Closing the gap on PEP

Published:Tuesday | July 20, 2021 | 12:05 AM

Having decided against treating the last school year as what it really was – a mostly lost period for learning – the education authorities must urgently explain their strategy for remediation now that the results of the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exams of grade-six students have confirmed the deepened educational crisis facing Jamaica.

Nearly half of the students will enter high schools ill-prepared for secondary education. Many people, however, suspect that the real figure is significantly worse than the official one given the hybrid system used for this year’s analysis of performance and placing students in high schools. The assessment, in part, was based on how students performed at grade four, or two grades ago, because of the COVID-19-induced disruption of the school system since early 2020. In other words, most students had little, limited direct contact or face-to-face engagement with their teachers for much of grade five and almost all of grade six.

Jamaica’s education system is notoriously hierarchical. About 50 of the island’s more than 200 high schools are members of an elite society. Their students generally do well in school-leaving exams, gaining the quality of passes required for matriculation to university education. A handful of the others are middling in their performance. The vast majority of high schools limp along.

FESTERS AT PRIMARY SCHOOL

However, high-school principals and other analysts say that the problem begins long before the students enter the secondary system. It festers first at primary school, where a kind of education apartheid also exists. While a handful of government primary schools produce good outcomes, the best performers are usually private preparatory schools, whose students tend to have parents who can pay their fees and, often, for extra lessons.

These disparities would have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The closing of schools for long stretches forced administrators, in the absence of face-to-face teaching, to resort to online classes, and other forms of delivery. The success was, at best, patchy.

Many children from poor families, despite the Government’s distribution of tablets to over 40,000 students, did not have devices – computers or smartphones – with which to join their classes. When they had the devices, they might not have Internet connectivity or couldn’t afford to pay for it. Moreover, deep into the school year, the education minister, Fayval Williams, disclosed that 120,000 students, 29 per cent of the enrolment in the primary and secondary system, had had no contact with their schools since the start of online teaching.

Minister Williams has not provided a breakdown of where these absent students fell. It is quite logical, nonetheless, to assume that the gap had a knock-on effect on performance in the PEP assessments. Further, because of the shortage of preparation time for students, the Government abandoned two elements of the PEP exams, choosing instead to rely on how students performed in those areas at grade four and weight those grades with scores from this year’s so-called abilities test.

OVERALL PASS RATE

Even at that, the education ministry reported an overall pass rate of 52.2 per cent of the just over 37,000 grade-six students who were assessed, compared to 60 per cent in 2020 when COVID-19 caused delays in the exams that were done by 39, 689 students, six per cent more than this year. In PEP’s first year (it replaced the Grade Six Achievement Test), nearly 43,000 students took the exam, 15 per cent above the 2021 number.

The overarching numbers say that we have a crisis, but a further breakdown of the figures underlines why there is the urgency for action to stem its worsening. For example, 10.5 per cent of the students in maths and 16.4 in language arts were deemed to be in need of intense support to bring them up to a standard required for secondary education, and 22 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively, will need help but are not in as bad a position as the other group.

It is very unlikely that the current summer school sessions, with too few students and not enough teachers participating, will come even close to bridging the deficit. The better option would have been to treat the past year as lost, and but for exceptional circumstances, keeping all children in their current grades, allowing them to catch up on the syllabus. The Government, unfortunately, foreclosed on that opportunity. Much effort will be required in the new school year to address the problem. Parents and students should know what is planned and how it is to be delivered.