The United Nations Children’s agency (UNICEF) is urging the Barbados-based Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) not to proceed with this year’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations in their current form given the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In a statement, UNICEF said that it is “concerned over the decision” by CXC to maintain the upcoming CSEC and CAPE for students as currently designed.
“UNICEF is calling on CXC and the Ministers of Education to make adjustments to the content and administration of these 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.”
Earlier, CXC said that it has engaged regional governments and other stakeholders on the conception and planning of the 2021 regional examinations.
In a statement, the CXC said that it is “enriched” by the dialogues with Ministers of Education and other government officials, teachers and students and is proceeding in this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to provide quality examinations to our students.
It said governance committees, which are comprised of regional government representatives, are reviewing recommendations on CXC’s 2021 regional examination strategy that emanated from these consultations and the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Council of Human and Social Development (COHSOD) 28th Special session on May 12 this year.
CXC said that its School Examinations Committee (SEC) met last Friday to consider and advise on the strategy for 2021 regional examinations and on Tuesday, the CXC governing Council will meet to discuss and approve final examinations and procedures for 2021.
“By latest Wednesday, 26 May 2021, a press release will be disseminated, and a press conference will be held, to update the public on these decisions,” the CXC said.
In its statement, UNICEF said that it recognises the efforts already made by the CXC in reducing certain requirements for these examinations and making concessions such as providing the topics for the long answer paper (Paper 2) five weeks prior to the commencement of the exams; reducing requirements for the SBAs and extending submission dates for some subjects as well as facilitating deferments to 2022 if students meet specific criteria.
In addition, UNICEF said it has also noted that there has been discussion on the further postponement of the examination date.
“However, there are still a number of issues which require more substantial changes and flexibility. 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.
“As we are aware, the current pandemic context has further exacerbated the gaps in preparedness amongst the most disadvantaged students. This year, there is a higher risk of those students in vulnerable conditions never sitting the exams.”
UNICEF said that this could seriously affect not only the students’ further education at higher secondary or tertiary levels, but also their future.
“As these high stakes exams are scheduled to proceed amidst a significant disruption to schooling at varying degrees across the Caribbean since early 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and continued partial or full school closures, the heightened risk of being further left behind, in particular students from lower income households, who continue to experience major challenges in accessing online learning is an important consideration.
“In addition, natural disasters such as the recent eruption of the La Soufrière volcano in St- Vincent have had an additional negative impact on the learning of thousands of students.”
UNICEF said that 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.
“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 16–18-year-old students across the region to sit the exams.  In this context, requiring students to sit an examination that includes components that cover an entire two-year course of study would risks being ineffective. “
UNICEF said that given these circumstances, it is calling for an equitable approach to these critical examinations, which takes into account the unequal access to learning due to the digital divide, the reduced curriculum coverage, and the high psycho-emotional stress, among other consequences of the prolonged school closure due to the pandemic.
“We therefore wish to recommend that the proposals made by the Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT) on how the CSEC and CAPE exams could be adapted to the specific needs and capacities of the students should be thoroughly considered by the CXC.
“In this view, UNICEF is kindly calling on the Ministers of Education of the CARICOM countries to request CXC to adjust the CSEC and CAPE exams 2021, and 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 includes, as per the CUT recommendations, that i.) Paper 1 should only test rationalized 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 rationalized board topics immediately to students and teachers in order to facilitate effective preparation. “
UNICEF said in order to provide extra support to students in times of COVID-19, it wishes to call on the Ministers of the CARICOM countries to 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 is also urging the ministers to confirm placement in schools for children who defer sitting exit exams (school completion) to next year, adding that “governments should guarantee that all children who decide to defer the sitting of exams to 2022 will automatically continue to be registered at their current schools”
The UN agency is also urging ministers to offset any financial costs for deferral to 2022.
“Where a student defers his/her exams to 2022, provisions should be made to ensure financial costs related to schooling are minimized. 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, should be continued.”
UNICEF also wants clarification on how the prevalence of COVID-19 cases will be taken into consideration (given the variation among the countries and within larger countries such as Jamaica and Guyana).
“These are unprecedented times and will collectively require us to adapt and recreate normalcy and routine, for the many lives disrupted. A moment like this calls for innovative approaches, to stem the effects of COVID-19 on generations to come. UNICEF stands committed to support ongoing efforts whilst making the call for equity and inclusivity, especially for those children and young people, who are now at heightened risk of being left behind.
“We also stand ready to support and accompany the Ministries of Education in the respective Caribbean countries to provide technical support in further developing and implementing the proposed changes,” UNICEF said.