United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is urging the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) to seriously consider proposals made by the federation of teachers' trade unions in the region to make adjustments to this year's school-leaving tests.
The call from the United Nations agency comes ahead of today's meeting of CXC's governing council to discuss and approve final examinations and procedures for 2021, given the setbacks to education triggered by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
UNICEF, in a news release yesterday, expressed concern over CXC's decision to maintain the upcoming Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) for students as currently designed.
The agency called on CXC and ministers of education in the region to make adjustments to the content and administration of the exams in line with recommendations provided by the Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT) “to ensure that the region's school students are not further disadvantaged”.
UNICEF said it acknowledged the efforts already made by CXC in reducing certain requirements for the examinations and making concessions, such as:
(i) providing the topics for the long answer paper (Paper 2) five weeks prior to the commencement of the exams;
(ii) reducing requirements for the SBAs and extending submission dates for some subjects;
(iii) facilitating deferments to 2022 if students meet specific criteria; and
(iv) the currently discussed further postponement of the examination date.
“However, there are still a number of issues which require more substantial changes and flexibility,” UNICEF said. “For example, no change has been made on the multiple-choice paper (Paper 1) which will still cover the entire syllabus, and no clear structure was shared as to how those students who meet deferral requirements and choose to defer will be supported to sit the exams at a later date in 2022.”
Against that background, the UN agency said it was requesting that consideration be given to “further simplify the content and the methodology of the exam across all subjects and adapt the timeline to the challenges currently faced by the students to ensure equitable accessibility and participation for every student”.
This, as per the CUT's recommendations, include:
i) Paper 1 should only test rationalised topics that are tested in Paper 2, and not the entire syllabi, as the said syllabi would not have been completed;
ii) for Paper 2, remove all hurdles including compulsory questions and ensure that no one question item should test two or more content areas; and
iii) extend the start of the examination by three weeks and release the rationalised broad topics immediately to students and teachers in order to facilitate effective preparation.
UNICEF also suggested that, in order to provide extra support to students, Caricom education ministries should expand and intensify the provision of mental health and psycho-social support for children as they prepare for the exams.
“Children who are participating in exams in 2021, regardless of the form the exam takes, should be provided with support to ensure they are mentally prepared and have the tools to deal with the added stress of being examined at this time,” UNICEF said.
Additionally, the agency recommended that governments guarantee that all children who decide to defer the sitting of exams to 2022 will automatically continue to be registered at their current schools.
It also suggested that provisions be made to ensure financial costs related to schooling are minimised for students who defer their exams to next year, and that services for children who benefited from social protection programmes for which their eligibility is based on age or school attendance, which would have ended in 2021, be continued.
UNICEF also asked governments to clarify how the prevalence of COVID-19 cases will be taken into consideration, given the variation among the countries and within larger states such as Jamaica and Guyana.
Noting that the pandemic has exacerbated the gaps in preparedness among the most disadvantaged students, UNICEF said that this year there is a higher risk of those students in vulnerable conditions never sitting the exams.
“This could seriously affect not only their further education at higher secondary or tertiary levels, but their future,” UNICEF said.
“In addition, natural disasters such as the recent eruption of La Soufrière volcano in St Vincent have had an additional negative impact on the learning of thousands of students. Teachers, parents and students themselves repeatedly expressed their worries about the low levels of preparedness, as the pandemic and the related impact on education prevented students from attaining learning outcomes as desired,” UNICEF said.
“If the exams were to be implemented as decided, our main concern is the low level of preparedness — academically and psychologically — of many of the thousands of 16-to 18-year-old students across the region to sit the exams,” the agency argued.
CXC has said that by tomorrow it will issue a press release and host a press conference to update the public on its decisions.