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Developing a Seamless Education System:

Uncovering barriers to education in the school system

Sharon Douglass Mangroo


In part fulfillment of the University of Sheffield Ed.D. programme
May 31, 2009

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Abstract

The current national plan for development describes a vision in which equal
opportunities are available to every citizen to allow achievement of potential
and enjoyment of a high quality of life. The development of a seamless, self
renewing, high-quality education system is one of the development
strategies cited. The seamlessness results from the absence of barriers to
movement across and between the different sub-sectors and the various
levels and types of education and training. The Government is soon to sign
a loan agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank to fund a
project within the Ministry of Education to support the development of this
seamless system.

Public dissatisfaction with a deteriorating social

environment and low student achievement, measured in national and


regional assessments, suggest that educational opportunities are not
equally available to all.
This paper examines the barriers to education that exist in the policies and
practices implemented in the schools. The literature was reviewed with a
focus on pedagogy, curriculum and assessment, and comparisons made
with reports of empirical studies that have been recently undertaken as part
of project preparation. Several barriers to education were uncovered in the
school processes with language and culture a common thread among
them.

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Developing a Seamless Education System: Uncovering barriers to


education in the school system

INTRODUCTION

The Inter-American Development Bank loan for the project: Support for a
Seamless Education System has been approved by the Board and the
agreement between the Bank and the Government of the Republic of
Trinidad and Tobago is soon to be signed with a projected start date of July
1st 2009.
In spite of considerable achievements in national development through
education, there is public dissatisfaction with the social progress.
Newspapers attest to a deteriorating social situation with daily reports of
crime that includes gang related violence and murders, some of which
involve school-aged youth.
Conflict approaches to education refer to systematic barriers to upward
social mobility. An understanding of the systemic factors that deny citizens
equal access to the education necessary to enhance their human
capabilities and functionings (Sen in Levitt, 2005) is vital to the success of
the Seamless project and to the establishment of a Seamless Education
System, since failure to address underlying causes of barriers may lead to
superficial solutions which while generating very visible activity, will not
change the status quo. This understanding should be shared by all the
major stakeholders in the project.
Sharon Douglass Mangroo

Lauder et al (2006) warn that it is

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essential to democracy that complex education ideas are presented clearly


to students, citizens and policymakers.
EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT
A declaration on The Right to Development as an inalienable human right
adopted by the United Nations in 1986 highlights the concept of
development as primarily related to the welfare of people. The declaration
speaks to the right and duty of States to formulate appropriate policies that
bring about the constant improvement in the well being of each individual
and of the entire population in part through assurance of equal opportunity
in access to basic resources, education, health services, food, housing
employment and the fair distribution of income (Universal Declaration of
Human Rights in Levitt 2005, p. 328).
Education is accepted by many as a major vehicle for social justice and
national efficiency offering a promise of equality of opportunity that leads to
social mobility transcending barriers such as social background, race,
ethnicity, class or gender. Educational attainment is suggested by Levitt
(2005) to be a significant determinant of income so that an increase in
schooling is associated with a decrease in income inequality. Education
therefore shapes individual life chances. On a national level, with the
increasing effect of globalization, education is expected to play a key role in
the provision of a competent highly skilled workforce capable of competing
in the knowledge economy.
Education has always been a major strategy for development in Trinidad
and Tobago. The first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams on the eve of this
countrys independence exhorted schoolchildren to remember that the
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future of Trinidad and Tobago is in your schoolbags. Successive


development plans have ascribed a major role to education and training.
The current national plan for development describes a vision in which equal
opportunities are available to every citizen to allow achievement of his/her
highest potential and enjoyment of a high quality of life. The development
of a seamless, self-renewing, high-quality education system is one of the
development strategies cited. The seamlessness results from the absence
of barriers to movement across and between the different sub-sectors and
the various levels and types of education and training.
This seamless education system is expected to impact on individuals as
well as on the nation. At the level of the individual citizen equal access to
learning opportunities will contribute to self-actualisation and a high quality
of life. At the national level it is expected to provide a highly skilled, talented
and knowledgeable workforce capable of stimulating innovation driven
growth

and

development

consistent

with

modern,

progressive,

technologically advancing nation. It is expected that at least sixty per cent


of the students exiting secondary school will progress to some form of
tertiary education.
The contribution of education to development is a topic that attracts much
debate. The issues include the purposes served by development and the
beneficiaries of education. Levitt (2005) observes that development is not
ultimately about physical capital or the availability of foreign exchange but
about social progress rooted in the cultural sphere. As a former colony
Trinidad and Tobago has long felt the influences of globalization in an
education system that primarily served the purposes of the colonizer. This,
Levitt argues, characteristic of a plantation economy, has left a legacy of
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contempt for the working people who sustain the economy evidenced
among other things by poor schooling. The current intensification of the
globalization thrust presents the risk of re-colonization through the
influence of Multinational and Transnational agencies that directly or
indirectly impinge on the education system through their effect on its inputs,
processes and outputs.
Consensus approaches to education view it in terms of a meritocracy
where effort coupled with intelligence results in achievement (Young 1961,
in Lauder et al, 2005) which is rewarded by occupational success. The
State is assumed to be efficient and fair in its dispensation so that all
interests are equitably served. Conflict approaches to education challenge
the assumption of equity and fairness and argue that systematic
differences exist in the chances of students of different social backgrounds
to access high status jobs. Bourdieu (in Lauder et al, 2006) suggests that
school processes related to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment
privilege the children of the professional middle classes. Trinidad and
Tobago boasts of a meritocratic system of selection for secondary
schooling, yet poor school performance is often associated with certain
socioeconomic and ethnic sectors of the population. This suggests that
equitable access to education opportunities and the resulting privileges
granted by society to the educated may not be a reality. As Trinidad and
Tobago emerges from a colonial society with its inherent system of
privileges based on social background and ethnicity it is important to
examine the questions of whether the current system of education
reproduces the inequalities present in society and the extent to which it can
be a source of progressive change.
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STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO


Primary level
In Trinidad and Tobago students generally begin their education at the age
of five though some attend pre-schools from the age of three. At eleven
years, in Standard five, they take the Secondary Entrance Assessment
Examination based on the national curriculum to determine placement at
secondary school. Other standardized national tests are administered at
Standards one and three in English and Mathematics. In 2008 national
tests were also introduced in Social Studies and Science at Standards two
and four. The results of all of these measures of achievement have
consistently demonstrated an unsatisfactory performance at national level.
This is exemplified by the National Test results for 2008. Four performance
levels were used to describe expected achievement as follows:
Level
Level 4
Level 3
Level 2
Level 1

Descriptor
Exceeds standards
Meets standards
Nearly meets standards
Below standards
Table 1 National Test Performance levels

The results of the tests indicate unsatisfactory performance in all four


subjects in all classes for more than half of the cohort with the exception of
Mathematics in Standard three.
Student

Mathematic

Language

performanc

Arts

e
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Science

Social
Studies

Standard

58

One
Standard two
Standard
37

65
61

52

64

58

60

three
Standard

four
Table 2 Percentage of students performing below satisfactory level in
2008

Eleven year-olds take the Secondary Entrance Assessment examination


(SEA) in standard five. Parents indicate choices for a secondary school but
actual placement is by merit determined by performance in the
examination. Those who score below 30% of the total on the examination
are considered at risk and placed in special classes at the secondary
schools selected by the Ministry since they are not likely to have qualified
for any of their choices. In 2008 13.3% of the seventeen thousand eight
hundred and fifty-five (17,855) students who wrote the exam fell into this
category. Sixteen hundred and forty (1640) of these were boys and seven
hundred and forty-two (742) girls.
International comparison supports the cause for concern. In 2006 Trinidad
and Tobago participated in the International Reading Literacy Study
(PIRLS) for the first time entering students in the fifth year of formal
schooling (about ten years old). The results showed a ranking significantly
lower than the PIRLS scale average and among the forty countries, higher
only than Iran, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco and South Africa,

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countries with large populations for whom English is not a first language.
The average achievement of girls was significantly higher than that of boys.
Secondary level
At the secondary level the majority of students exit the formal system at the
end of form five when they take the Caribbean Secondary Examination (CSEC) certified by the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC). Since a grade
one, two or three at General Proficiency level in Mathematics and English
language are pre-requisites for the next level of education, performance in
these two subjects may be taken as indications of general achievement.
The results for the CXC C-SEC examination over the last three years show
that just about half of all candidates obtained a grade three or higher in
English language.

Year
2006
2007
2008
% with Grades 55.81
52.54
49.56
Table 3 Performance in CXC C-SEC General English Language
I-III

In the 2008 examination of the 20,000 candidates registered for the


General Proficiency Mathematics examination only 47 per cent achieved
Grades one to three. This is consistent with the trend shown from 2000 to
2004 when the percentages ranged from 46.0 to 51.1.
More Low Achieving Boys

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Through the primary and secondary levels of the school system the results
of the various assessments of student performance indicate that
approximately half of the school population is performing at a generally
unsatisfactory level and at least thirteen per cent considered at risk in key
subject areas that contribute to individual and national development. In all
cases, with the exception of Mathematics at C-SEC level, girls outperform
boys and the number of low or underachieving boys is significantly higher
than the same category of girls. This together with the alarming revelation
by the Minister of Health that thirty per cent of children in the 10-19 year
age group have been diagnosed as depressed presents a significant
problem of national dimension to development and provides support to the
inference that systematic barriers to education exist for a large segment of
the school-aged population.
In the past quantity issues were a major preoccupation as school places
were insufficient to meet the demand. With the construction of new schools
however, attention is now being turned to the quality of education that will
enable more than physical access to the school building. Tinker et al (in
George, 2007) suggest that while socio-economic disadvantage is still a
major source of underachievement, the interaction of school factors such
as teacher-student relationships, classroom interaction, curriculum content
and assessment methods are important contributors.

This leads to an

examination of the school processes of pedagogy, curriculum and


assessment that may block student performance.

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Policies and School Processes as a Barrier to Education: Pedagogy


Pedagogy involves the processes of teaching and learning through which
the students access and engage the curriculum. Robin Alexander defines
pedagogy as not only the act of teaching but the underlying purposes,
values, ideas, assumptions, theories and beliefs which inform, shape and
seek to justify it. (Lauder et al. 2005. P. 724) Pedagogy then depends on
the teachers competence and classroom practice as well as the very
nature of the teacher himself or herself. Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2006)
have found that teachers have powerful effects on student achievement in
reading and Mathematics.
Dewey recommends a pedagogy that allows the active involvement of
pupils in their learning. To facilitate this they must be presented with
authentic and relevant problems together with the information necessary to
solve the problem and the means to test the solution. This approach
contradicts the version of teaching that is primarily transmission of
information and often characterized by rote learning. While used in many
classrooms, a transmissive approach may effectively exclude some
students from the curriculum; boys for example, are believed by many
educators to have a unique learning style that is different from girls and is
more activity and real-life oriented (George, 2009). McKinney and Chappell
(2009) note that some students experience success in mathematics with
traditional teaching methods but many are excluded when the predominant
instructional methodology is chalk-and-talk and individual seatwork. They
recommend alternative strategies such as opportunities for discovery and
promotion of student discourse.

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Since in any classroom students will normally have diverse learning needs
and styles the teacher must not only believe that every child is capable of
learning but must translate

that belief through the use of a variety of

teaching and assessment strategies that cater to individual modes of


learning to ensure that no pupil is excluded.
Undifferentiated instruction
The official policy as expressed in local curriculum documents and
resources for primary and secondary levels encourage transactional and
transformation approaches to pedagogy but a recent study of teaching
practices conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Education supports the
observations and experiences of Ministry staff that universal primary and
secondary education tends to be delivered in the same way for all students
in a class. Delivery is mainly transmissive with an emphasis on the verbal
linguistic approach. Knowledge handed down from the teacher is passively
received by students working independently and learning remains at the
recall or comprehension levels. Since students are not actively engaged in
the thinking process, critical thinking and problem solving skills are not well
developed and rote memorization is the predominant result. Assessments
too are generally uniformly administered as written tests to the
disadvantage of those students who may have other strengths but weak
written ability (Northey et al., 2007).
The national assessment results described earlier attest that such an
approach clearly meets the needs of only some students.

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Teachers perceptions and Teacher-student relationships


Studies have found that students academic outcomes are influenced by
teachers perceptions and a correlation has been found to exist between
how teachers view children and how the children view themselves. Thus
teachers beliefs about their students influence the quality of education that
schoolchildren receive and their opportunity for learning (Sirota and Bailey
2009). Superville (in George, 2009) found that local male students felt that
very little was expected of them by teachers and that this low expectation
worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The attention given by teachers to boys
in classroom interactions has also been found to be more negative than for
girls and this is advanced as a factor that impacts negatively on boys
academic performance. Younger, Warrington, and Williams (1999 in
George, 2009) note that teachers perceive girls as having more positive
attitudes and skills for learning than boys. The feminization of teaching is
also believed by many to negatively affect boys academic performance
though this is debated in the literature.
The Miske Witt Report (2008) indicates that most teachers surveyed voiced
the belief that all children can learn and that they have high expectations
for all students but the discussions at meetings of teachers reveal low
expectations and sometimes frustration in dealing with those who have
learning needs that are not met by their standard practice.
Professional Development and competence
Morais and Neves (2001) assure that through appropriate professional
development pedagogic practices can be changed to improve school
results, particularly with children of disadvantaged social groups. They

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declare that pedagogic change may also result from joint work between
researchers and teachers.
In their final report to the Ministry of Education on Inclusive Education,
Miske Witt and Associates (2008) observed that teachers suspicion that
more students had disabilities than were actually diagnosed was an
indication of students struggle to learn and teachers struggle to teach
them. They noted that while most teachers are not grounded in research on
best practices or action research in their teaching, they want and need to
be provided with the knowledge and skills to address learning, behavioural,
and cognitive needs in the general education classroom. Ninety per cent of
the teachers surveyed reported that they have no qualifications in special
needs education and 45% could only understand somewhat what is
necessary to teach in an inclusive classroom. The Teaching Service
Employee Survey conducted in 2007 supports this as 58% of the teachers
who responded felt that they received insufficient information on training
and professional development opportunities.

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Workload
The increase, expansion and intensification of work brought about by policy
and curriculum changes may also have a negative impact on pedagogy. In
the USA Valli (2007) found that where such changes occurred in response
to a NCLB policy directive on differentiated instruction, teachers felt that
there was insufficient time available for reflective practice. The response
was increasing importance of institutional roles in shaping and subsuming
their other roles as teachers. Valli further cautions that under those
conditions, even where professional development was available, instruction
not only did not improve but may have declined in quality. In Trinidad and
Tobago with the many changes that have taken place through reforms at
both primary and secondary levels within the last ten years, over half the
teachers surveyed in 2007 have complained that the work that they do is
beyond their job descriptions, that they do not have time to carry out their
work and that there are insufficient resources to do so. One third of them
also feel that the stress of the job is affecting their job performance.
Pedagogical barriers summarised
While official policy favours transformational and transactional approaches,
the processes of teaching and learning practiced in local classrooms are
predominantly transmissive and teacher-centered and do not generally
meet the diverse learning needs of all students. Teacher expectations and
their relationships with students may be having a negative impact on the
academic performance of those who are low achieving. Many teachers do
not have the skills and competence needed to differentiate curriculum and
instruction to meet the learning needs of diverse students but in-service
professional development opportunities to address this are limited.
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Policies and School Processes as a Barrier to Education: Curriculum


Dillon (2009) suggests that educators are concerned with answers to two
basic questions about curriculum: What are the things that comprise it and
what do we do about these things. Official, though not exhaustive answers
to the first question are provided in Ministry of Education policy documents.
These are translated into classroom practice through a series of
interpretations by education personnel at various levels. Emphasis in this
section is on the second question in relation to the existing official
curriculum.

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Curriculum flexibility
To address the learning needs of all students in a diverse classroom, the
curriculum should be flexible to provide meaningful access and opportunity
for engagement to all without stigmatization or resorting to isolation for a
few. As the assessment results show there are many students in many
classrooms that have been excluded in some way from the curriculum.
They include those who are culturally or linguistically diverse, low
achievers, those whose learning styles do not match the prevailing
pedagogy, as well as those identified with disabilities and a number who
may understand some but not enough of the subject matter to achieve
competence. Orkwis and McLane (1998) advise that access to the
curriculum starts with a students ability to interact with it through learning
materials and they have identified the ways in which these materials bar full
curriculum access and engagement. Barriers to access may be physical,
sensory or cognitive which prevent or reduce students chance of achieving
competence. Learning materials used to teach curriculum content should
therefore have flexible designs to meet the diverse learning needs of
students with different abilities, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and
learning styles. The instructional and assessment methodologies must also
provide for multiple means of representation and expression matched to
the learning needs of each student.

Curriculum materials

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Representation of curriculum content by any single means may provide


obstacles to subject material for some students. Printed text is inaccessible
for many students as for example those with low vision, blindness or
learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Audio used alone creates barriers for
students with hearing difficulties, those who may not be comfortable with
the language of instruction, may have auditory processing problems or may
not hear well in a noisy environment. Images or graphics only, exclude
blind students, those with low vision or those whose experience does not
provide the necessary clues to able to interpret them. Complex concepts
and lack of background or pre-requisite knowledge about specific topics
may make some content be inaccessible.
In expressing themselves, pen or pencil and paper exercises present
barriers to students who have difficulty forming letters, spelling or writing
legibly. Many are unable to make effective oral presentations and drawing
or Illustrating is difficult for some students.
The Ministry of Education provides textbooks in a range of subject areas to
schools based on principals choices from a list of approved books. Once
the choice is made the single title is provided for each class for each
subject. Some additional resources have been provided to schools, mainly
for Reading. Northey (2007) noted that the predominant curriculum material
used in classrooms is the textbook alone. Miske Witt (2008) reported that in
the classrooms visited by the team audiovisual materials were rarely used
and available instructional and teaching aides were often locked away in a
storage room or the principals office. Specialized learning and teaching
materials to accommodate the visually and hearing impaired were not
usually available. In addition even where instructional resources were
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accessible to teachers there was very limited competence in their


appropriate use.
The performance of students in English at all levels of national and regional
assessments shows that the text book as the main vehicle of subject
content is not effective for as many as half of all students. Since reading
comprehension skills are required to access texts, those students who are
without them will also be excluded from access to subject matter in all
content areas leading to generally low achievement.
Access to subjects
The range of subjects offered in primary and secondary schools is
prescribed by the Ministry of Education. Limited subject options are
available at lower secondary school where there is a core curriculum but
Mathematics and English Language are the only mandatory subjects at
forms four and five. Due to limited staff and laboratory facilities, students
opting for certain subject areas such as the sciences and Information
Technology must usually meet criteria set by the school. In some schools
students are streamed by perceived ability and their choice of subjects
limited. In others access to subjects is competitive. This practice effectively
excludes lower performing students from certain subjects associated with
managerial and professional jobs. Since girls have been outperforming
boys at all levels of the school system, boys are at a disadvantage in
competing with them for subject spaces. This is illustrated over the period
2003-2007 where significantly more girls than boys entered the CXC CSEC examination in all subjects beside Physics (George, 2009).

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The systematic exclusion of some students from science subjects and the
resulting gap between the achievement of boys and girls has implications
for achievement of the goals related to the national strategy for
development.
Barriers to curriculum engagement
To facilitate engagement in the curriculum each child must be provided with
the support necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. The teacher must
be familiar with the learning needs of each student and monitor individual
progress. Interesting and intellectually challenging learning experiences
that take account of diverse interests, with appropriate scaffolding, must
include a balance of novelty and familiarity and a variety of formats and
content.
Miske Witt (2008) found that the degree of student support given by
teachers in local classrooms was inadequate. Pre-assessment of pupils is
not the norm and apart from test results, teachers do not systematically
record individual student progress. There is a general absence of
documented instructional planning and very limited accommodations to the
scope and sequence of the curriculum are made for students who may not
be fully engaged.

Teachers focus on large group instruction with little

individual attention often limited to those students in the front rows rather
than the slower students who normally sit at the back. Where group work
was practiced, grouping patterns were ad hoc rather than planned to
improve performance. The absence of qualified support staff to assist
students with special learning needs leads to disengagement with the
curriculum and often results in disaffection with learning.

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Northey (2007) reported on a shortage of instructional resources in the


classroom but also on the inability of some teachers to use those that were
available. Along with Miske Witt they also noted teachers opinions that
crowded classrooms and limited physical space militated against the use of
a variety of teaching strategies. The high rate of teacher absenteeism or
vacancies in some schools also reduces the chances of student access to
and engagement in the curriculum.
The curriculum environment
Students learn best in a secure environment but many students do not feel
safe in schools. The presence of gangs and gang-related behaviours in
some schools are a serious deterrent to curriculum engagement for
members as well as non-members of the gangs. Several students have
been victims of gang-related criminal activities with one murder taking
place in a school. In the 2006 Programme for International Reading
Literacy Study Trinidad and Tobago was among four countries with less
than 30% of students with high student safety in school index.
The physical design of some older schools with classrooms separated only
by chalkboards or other thin partitions provides a noisy and distracting
environment that is not well tolerated by some learners.
Curriculum barriers summarised
Several Curriculum factors therefore present barriers to access and
engagement of students in learning, most of these revolving around the
teacher. Textbooks are the predominant source of subject matter
knowledge and teachers are not versed in the effective use of alternative
instructional resources. There is limited evidence of systematic instructional
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planning or monitoring individual student progress. Teachers provide limited


individual attention to some students and do not make methodical
accommodations to the curriculum for diverse learning needs. Assistive
technologies and support personnel for special learning needs are not
normally available. The learning environment in some schools does not
encourage learning and absent teachers reduce student interaction with the
curriculum.

Policies and School Processes as a Barrier to Education: Assessment


In Trinidad and Tobago two high-stakes examinations constitute the major
focal points for assessment issues. A high-stakes examination is one for
which the consequences directly affect the individuals who take it and have
a significant impact on their lives. The Secondary Entrance Assessment
examination determines placement of students in secondary schools based
on achievement levels, while the Caribbean Examination Council
Secondary Education Certificate taken at the end of five years of secondary
schooling influences access to the next level of education and to the level
of employment. In recent times the national tests administered at standards
one through four, meant to measure the performance of the system, have
begun to be treated as high-stakes by some teachers and parents.
Unintended consequences of high-stakes examinations are subject to
much discussion in the literature. While the ultimate goal of such
examinations is usually to promote student learning and achievement, the
opposite may occur. Some of the concerns expressed include the
narrowing of the curriculum as increased test preparation may even lead to
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teaching to the tests excluding content and skills that are not tested.
Broadfoot and Pollard (in Lauder, 2006) warn that failure experienced at an
early age may discourage learning, leading to a pattern that is likely to be
repeated at secondary and even tertiary levels. Christenson et al (2007)
further admonish that already struggling students are most likely to be so
affected and point to a positive relationship between high-stakes testing
and the student drop-out rate. Broadfoot and Pollard quote Madaus (1994)
to caution chillingly that far from being neutral, tests and assessments act
to transform, mould and even to create, what they supposedly measure
(Lauder, 2006. p.765).
The effect of national tests in the classroom
Northey et al (2007) report negative effects of the high-stakes tests at
primary level. These include the washback effect on the curriculum as
teachers emphasize the areas regularly tested to the neglect of non-tested
content. Unofficial practice tests featuring low level items that appear in
national newspapers are widely used by both parents and teachers and
reinforce this emphasis. The national tests have spawned a private
lessons industry that provides extra classes, often drill type, on afternoons
and weekends to those who can afford them. Privately published practice
tests are also included on the booklist of some schools, to be purchased by
parents. The significance of the consequences of the SEA examination has
the effect of making it, rather than the official curriculum, the object of
attention.
Though teachers articulate their belief that continuous assessment can
enhance student achievement, it is not widely implemented. Teachers
express fears that this practice requires a different type of teaching than
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that demanded by the exam. Classroom assessments mirror the national


ones with a focus on evaluation of lower level thinking, mainly through
objective type questions. Feedback to students when given is usually in the
form of grades with little informational comment, though specific tests may
be reviewed by the teacher with the class (not individuals). Testing is
approached more as a source of accountability, they observe, than as a
tool for improving student learning. Delayed feedback to teachers from the
national tests- the 2008 results of tests taken in June 2007 were released
in May 2009- reduces the potential for diagnostic application of the results.
Even so, Northey found assessment literacy among teachers to be low so
that few teachers were able to appropriately interpret the results to assist in
instructional decision making.

Both Northey and Miske Witt noted the

absence of diagnostic testing as a tool for instructional decision making.


Several writers (Christenson et al 2007, Decker and Bolt, 2008) have noted
that the results from large scale assessments cannot be substituted for
diagnostic assessments. They are best used to indicate where further
information is needed for specific decision making about particular
students.
At the secondary level school based assessments form part of the CXC
examination and testing for the examination is distributed over the five
terms in which there is direct preparation. Some schools begin preparation
for this exit exam as early as the third year of school however, neglecting
aspects of the lower secondary curriculum that are not examined in the fifth
year. This includes important content such as education for citizenship and
personal development that contribute to maturity and are necessary for

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achievement of the national goals for development. Extra lessons for those
who can afford it are also commonplace at this level.
Social promotion
Since 2001 the advent of universal secondary education has meant places
for all students at secondary school. The unintended consequence of this
decision is the transition of many students who are not yet ready for
secondary level. While retention of such students has not proven effective,
this social promotion has resulted in frustration for students who cannot do
the work, as well as for the teachers who are ill equipped to teach them and
sends a message to some that they can succeed without working while
their parents get a false sense of their progress (Christenson et al 2007).
Parents speak of their children passing the SEA examination by virtue of
being placed in a secondary school while in fact the child may have
achieved a low score that indicates a failure to meet the standards.
Second chances
Students who are unsuccessful in the exit examinations may attend publicly
provided evening classes or repeat the course at private schools. However
those students who do not succeed are often employed in jobs that
demand long or irregular hours and so have difficulty accessing classes.
Barriers created by assessment summarized
The negative, unintended consequences of the high-stakes tests that
dominate assessment in the education system produce major barriers to
education for many students. While physical access to schooling is
assured, the impact of the tests affects the nature of instruction, the
students self perception as a success or failure as well as his/her ability to
Sharon Douglass Mangroo

Page 25

utilize the educational opportunities offered. Provision of additional aides to


learning such as extra lessons, texts and practice tests places those who
can afford them at an advantage.

Language and Culture as Barriers to Education


Language is both rooted in the culture of Trinidad and Tobago and an
aspect of it. The language of the coloniser with its implication of supremacy
is part of the legacy of our colonial past and a reality of our place in the
global economy. Levitt (2005, p.74) laments that there is a dysfunctional
disjuncture between the energy, creativity, spiritual values and culture of the
Caribbean peasantry and the plantation legacy which permeates formal
economic and governmental institutions.Shepherd (2000) deplores the
continued negative representation of black Caribbean people as other
arguing that the mentalities and ideologies of past enslavers are
perpetuated today by those with power and authority even through the
medium of texts used in schools. Ramchand, Mc Donald and Small in
separate papers (Hall and Benn ed. 2000) bewail the neglect of local
culture and recolonisation through the medium of imported cultural
products.
Joanne Kilgour Dowdy (2002) recounting the conflict experienced growing
up in Trinidad with two languages: the English language of the ruling class
and the Creole, of the home and of the heart, describes how my brain
began to feel as if it were well oiled and moving along without hiccups
when freed her to use the Creole to express herself.

Sharon Douglass Mangroo

Page 26

Linguists have established that Creole is a language and not merely


broken English with the implication of inferiority. Some students are fluent
in both languages and able to use each appropriately. Some, however, are
unable to function effectively in a medium in which instruction, texts and
tests are in Standard English while the language of the home, in which
they create, analyse and solve problems, is Creole. Dr. Ian Robertson at
his inaugural professorial lecture, noting that the first language provides the
best measure of mental maturity, observed that assessment of students at
all levels is on the basis of their control of one language while they operate
in an environment with multiple languages. Recognising the power that
achievement in the CXC examinations has to determine social mobility, he
urged educators to examine the roles played by each language,
considering the areas to which each has the most potential to contribute.
Must education be in English? he asked.

Conclusion
Barriers to education exist in the school system through the pedagogy,
curriculum and assessment practices that largely ignore the diverse
learning needs of students. The nonexistence of overt standards for
teacher development and for teaching has resulted in a dominant
pedagogy that caters for a few and excludes many students. Reliance on
the textbook and lack of universally designed curriculum materials favours
those

with

reading

and

comprehension

competence.

High-stake

assessments have a negative backwash effect on the curriculum and


further disadvantage some, while the results provide limited diagnostic
Sharon Douglass Mangroo

Page 27

feedback because of delays and teachers inability to interpret them.


Response to these barriers privileges those who can afford additional
lessons or instructional and test preparation materials. Student learning is
determined primarily through written tests. Perhaps, however, the greatest
barrier to education lies in the issues that surround language as it is used in
the home, the school and in assessment. Policies that acknowledge the
language issues faced by students and teachers and provide for adequate
teacher preparation to deal with them are absent. There is the possibility
that the current assessments test linguistic ability more than the skills
expected to be learned. If education is the vehicle for development, then
policies must be enacted to ensure that education reaches all students as it
is meant to.

Sharon Douglass Mangroo

Page 28

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