STATEMENT BY MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, CULTURE,
YOUTH AFFAIRS, FISHERIES AND AGRICULTURE
DR THE HONOURABLE NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
TUESDAY, JUNE 25, 2019
EXIT PROFICIENCY EXAMS
Residents and Citizens of the Virgin Islands, I greet you with a spirit of love and humility in this graduation season, and I extend congratulations to all the students and families celebrating at this time.
By now, many persons would be aware that I made a decision in regard to what the pass mark for the Exit Proficiency Examination should be. This government is a government of transparency, and, therefore, I am happy to discuss the context and rationale for such a decision and allay the concerns of well-meaning individuals who may question the impact of a such a decision on the integrity of our graduation results and our education system as a whole.
HIGH STANDARDS ARE IMPORTANT
Firstly, it is important to say that I am an educator, and I come from a family of educators. I have educated myself on the highest level, obtaining a doctorate of philosophy from one of the best schools in the world. I have competed against students from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, UC Berkley, MIT. 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.
Additionally, I must inform you. I understand very well that failure is a very important part of the learning process. Shifting standards to accommodate poor performing students sends the wrong message. As a lecturer at HLSCC, I nearly failed an entire class one semester because they plagiarized. They did not deserve to pass, and I had no qualms about giving them the grade they deserved. I understood very clearly that students who failed a course were forced to work harder the next time around, and there were instances where some of my F students became A students when their mentality changed.
STUDENTS BEST INTEREST CONSIDERED
I preface my statement in such a way, so the public would understand that I did not take this decision lightly. I consulted with education officers, teachers, parents, and students. I researched as much information as was available to me, and I carefully considered the implications of such a decision.
I must emphasize that the number one consideration for this action was the protection of the interests and welfare of our students in the immediate and long term. And I can assure the public that this action is a part of an overall reform that will ultimately strengthen our education system.
ASSESSMENT IS A PIECE OF THE OVERALL PICTURE
Every credible educator – teacher, principal, or education officer – knows or should know that there is a general principle that teachers should not test what they have not taught and learning is not complete until you have provided opportunities for practice. Final assessment reveals not just what students have learned but how well they have been taught. So assessment cannot be separated from the process that leads to assessment.
The raising of standards in education does not begin with a test. It begins with instruction that meets the needs of every student, whether the student learns best by listening, seeing, reading and writing, or doing with the hands. It begins with teachers who have the training that prepares them to execute, principals who have the willingness and the ability to lead and supervise the process and education officers who have the knowledge, the ability, and the dedication to oversee the entire process.
Allow me to give some background on the exit proficiency exam and give the rationale for my decision.
BACKGROUND OF EPE
This exam, introduced in 2016, is a relatively new concept to the Virgin Islands. It replaced the School Leaving Examination, which accounted for 15 percent of the requirements towards graduation. If students did well in their course work throughout the year, but did not do well on the school leaving exam, they could still graduate. Partly in reaction to this reality, the ministry introduced an exam that students had to pass in order to graduate. Therefore, if students passed all other requirements and even thrived in their 6 years of secondary school, they would not be able to graduate if they did not test well.
HONOUR STUDENTS FAIL
Very early in my tenure as Education Minister, I discovered there were a number of students who were honour students who failed the EPE. A profile of the grades of some students who failed will further illuminate this point:
One student was not going to be able to graduate, because she failed the exam. But in her final year at ESHS, she had a 3.4 GPA, far higher than many students who would be receiving their diplomas. Her grades in this her final year were as follows: English B, Social Studies A-, Technical Drawing B+, Physical Education A+, Human and Social Biology C+, Woodwork B+, Electronic Document Preparation B+, Tourism A+, Math B+
This type of profile was not unique. There were several other students failing with GPA’s above 3.0.
This reality led to two important questions: (1)how was it possible that students would perform so well during the course of the school year but fail this exam; and (2) what was this exam measuring?
These questions prompted further investigation, which revealed the following conclusions:
1. 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;
2. After failing the EPE, students could not see what questions they got wrong in order to determine what their weak areas were;
3. It was unclear how the results of the EPE were used to improve teaching and learning;
4. Teachers believed that the shift system impacted students’ preparation for the EPE;
5. The learning environment following the storms was not ideal, including students being housed in a warehouse where there is constant noise for the duration of the school day;
6. The format of the exam was much different than the students were accustomed to;
7. In some cases, the instructions on the exam were different to what the children were accustomed to;
8. The anxiety associated with this heavily weighted exam impacted students’ performance;
9. And, finally, the pass mark for the exam was different from the pass mark the students 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.
CONSISTENCY AND FAIRNESS
After a careful, examination of the facts, it would be callous for me to ignore the blatant ways in which students were placed at a disadvantage. I know I am being accused of watering down standards, but these standards must be fair and they must be consistent. The concepts that students are instructed on must be the same concepts they are tested on. The pass mark that students must achieve at the beginning of the process must be the same pass mark that they have in the end.
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 can result in emotional trauma that in my view 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.
I am absolutely certain that there are students among this group, who will thrive in tertiary studies and in the workforce. Let them say that the government and Ministry of Education did not unfairly hold them back but pushed them towards their destiny.
And this was the background upon which I made the decision, not simply to lower the pass mark of the exam, but to align the pass mark of the exam with the school’s standards. This means that if the school has a pass mark of 55 the exam will have a pass mark of 55. If the school has a pass mark of 60, the exam will have a pass mark of 60. This was the right decision.
ALIGNMENT OF PASS MARK
And in the face of all the inconsistencies and disadvantages students were subjected to, I also made the decision to allow students who satisfied all other graduation requirements, to walk with their classmates and be given their diplomas upon passing the epe.
THE FUTURE – REVIEW & REFORM
Moving forward our intention as a government is to do the following:
1. Review the current education policies that govern pre-primary, primary, secondary, technical and vocational education;
2. Where necessary, upgrade existing policy structures to reflect our collective vision for the territory’s human capital development;
3. Ensure alignment between education policies, the curricula for schools, and the Education Act;
4. To streamline education and training objectives with the labour market demands and requirements; and
5. Establish a clear policy for inclusion across all aspects of the education system that supports international standards of best practice.
During this process, the methodologies applied in the assessment of students and the graduation requirements would be reviewed.
Before I close, I want to reiterate that the course of action that has been adopted does not compromise the integrity or the standards of our secondary education system. Rather it is an effort to protect the integrity of the system.
I am an academic; I am also an educator, as well as a life long student. Standards are very important in the academic world. I fully appreciate what it means for the rest of the world to respect the qualifications that an individual presents.
And, therefore, I hope that you will trust me when I say that I will never allow anything to be done that compromises the value that is associated with participation in and graduation from our education system.
In closing, I hope that I have been clear in explaining the rationale for the decision to align the pass mark for this year’s exit proficiency examination. I hope that everyone in the Territory will support the ultimate goals of this decision, which is to protect our young people from inconsistent and unfair policies and practices within our education system. In due course, I will share more details of this government’s vision for the reform of the education sector. The government has every intention of consulting with the stakeholders in the reform process throughout my tenure as Minister. I thank you for your kind attention.