Education Minister Dr Natalio Wheatley has said his ministry’s move to lower the pass mark for the secondary school Exit Proficiency Exams (EPE) is to protect the interests of students in the long-term.
The ministry announced recently that the pass mark had been lowered from 60 percent to 50 percent for school-leaving students.
In a seven-page statement on Tuesday, Dr Wheatley said that the decision was made after consulting with parents, students, teachers and officials of his ministry on the issue.
“I did not take this decision lightly. I researched as much information as was available to me, and I carefully considered the implications of such a decision,” he said.
Dr Wheatley said, as a former educator and academic, he understands that failure is a very important part of the learning process and “shifting standards to accommodate poor performing students sends the wrong message”.
“I know the high academic standards students must meet internationally, and I assure you that by no means am I seeking to handicap our students,” he further argued.
Probe: Students were being disadvantaged
The Education Minister said he discovered early on in his tenure as Education Minister that there were several students who were honour students who failed the EPE.
“This reality led to two important questions: one, how was it possible that students would perform so well during the course of the school year but fail this exam? And two, what was this exam measuring?”
He said the questions above prompted an investigation and it revealed that the teachers with the responsibility of preparing the students had never seen an EPE exam.
They were not privy to the results of past exams and felt handicapped in preparing students to improve their results.
He said after failing the exams, students could not see what questions they got wrong to determine what their weak areas were.
“It was unclear how the results of the EPE were used to improve teaching and learning,” the minister argued.
Shift system affected students
He said the probe revealed that teachers held the view that the shift system impacted the students’ preparation for the exam as the environment was not ideal.
Another point was the format of the exam; the instructions of which differed from what students were accustomed to.
He said students’ anxiety level impacted their performance, and the pass mark was also different from what was used all year.
“As a result of my investigations, I concluded that there were significant gaps between the expectations of the Ministry and the process of teaching and learning in the schools, and that put the students at a disadvantage,” he said.
The system must be fair
Dr Wheatley said while he is being accused of “watering down standards” it would be callous for him to ignore how students were being disadvantaged.
“When the system lacks consistency and fairness, another problem is created that has very far-reaching consequences. Students who have worked hard and, in some cases, are honour students, would be denied the opportunity to participate in one of the most memorable experiences of their young lives.”
This, he reasoned, can result in emotional trauma — something he believes is “inexcusable”.
“Not receiving a diploma will result in a black mark on their record that could affect their prospects going forward. These were consequences I was not prepared to entertain. Let them say that the government and Ministry of Education did not unfairly hold them back but pushed them towards their destiny.”
He said this is the backdrop that he used to make the “right decision” and not to “simply to lower the pass mark of the exam, but to align the pass mark of the exam with the school’s standards.”
The exam was first introduced to the territory in 2016 to replace the School Leaving Examination, which accounted for 15 per cent of the requirements towards graduation. Notably, students must also satisfy all graduation requirements to graduate.
Education reform coming
In the meantime, Dr Wheatley said plans are coming to review and reform several education policies that govern pre-primary, primary, secondary, technical and vocational education.
He said where necessary, existing policy structures will be upgraded to reflect the government’s collective vision for the territory’s human capital development.
“During this process, the methodologies applied in the assessment of students and the graduation requirements would be reviewed,” he also noted.
He said consultations on the reform with stakeholders is also coming.
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