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US-based Trini Professor reflects on impact of SEA exam

As a rite of passage into the secondary school system in Trinidad and Tobago, children must complete the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) in their last year of primary school. 

The SEA exam is a replacement to the Common Entrance Exam which was first introduced in 1961 out of the need to assign students to a limited number of secondary school spots. 

As such, a well-known feature of the Common Entrance Exam was that many students failed and had to repeat the exam or dropped out of school. 

However, with the SEA exam being introduced in 2001, there was already a significant increase in secondary school spots though it was still possible for a student to fail the exam and need to repeat. 

Like its predecessor, the SEA exam is still considered a high-stakes test as students are ranked and sent to schools based on their performance on the exam. 

As such, student learning and outcomes are often focused on ensuring that students pass for their top school of choice even if it means having to travel over an hour from home. 

Often times, the school of choice is thought to predict future success.    Within the competitive climate of the SEA exam, students often begin their preparation for the exam in the third standard of elementary school (two years prior to taking the exam). 

Teachers are faced with the pressure of getting students ready for the exam while students are subjected to long hours during and after school hours focused on exam preparation. 

The duty for continuing the learning process is often transferred to parents who often report that their children need to do homework and study late into the night. 

The alternative would be to wake up early to do so. Student work is often filled with rote learning and content that is specific to the test. 

Additionally, the nature of testing climate requires that students begin taking tests in early elementary school, usually in the first or second year. 

Since a primary school’s success is tied to students’ performance on the SEA exam, the school administration must ensure that teachers, students, and parents do their parts in making sure students achieve remarkable results on the exam.   The perpetuation of a secondary entrance exam may be looked at as a continuance of tradition with a failure to fully evaluate alternatives to the exam. However, many believe that there are benefits to the exam that outweigh its potential risk. 

For instance, there is the idea that students are ranked according to their ability level and therefore placed at schools that can meet their needs. Students in turn can get targeted support for giftedness or learning concerns. 

There are trade programs at some of the lower performing schools that many students enjoy and in which they excel. 

It is not uncommon to see some of these students later going into long-term careers with highly competitive salaries. 

However, even with this potential advantage, there is concern that students from particular demographic groups (eg. those with a low socioeconomic status) are likely to be the ones placed at lower-performing schools. 

There is also the concern that students placed at lower-performing schools are not held to the same expectations as those placed at high performing schools because of the belief that these students do not have the ability to perform as well academically. 

There is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is potentially at play here where students come to accept low expectations about their academic ability and in turn perform poorly.  There other challenges to the SEA exam that highlight the problematic nature of the high-stakes test and the structures that support it. An important set of skills to academic success in many career fields is the ability to be creative, problem-solve, and engage in critical thinking. 

If Trinidad and Tobago is to become a leader in innovation, technology development, and an overall top performer in the world academically, these skills must be nurtured. 

However, as is true with high-stakes tests around the world, the SEA exam reduces the child’s ability to fully develop these skills because the curriculum and delivery are targeted towards performing well on a test. 

The extra time spent on test preparation at home and at school take away time that should be spent in free play, socialization, learning of musical instruments, relaxation, and bonding time with the family. 

Such activities are more critical to brain development, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking than formalized teaching. 

This is not to say that formalized teaching is not important, however, students must have a tremendous opportunity during the day to marinate and act on the learning that they receive at school.   There is a limited body of research evaluating the effects of the Common Entrance Exam and now SEA exam on students’ overall well-being. 

In a study conducted by researchers in the Ministry of Education in Trinidad and Tobago and the University of the West Indies in Trinidad in 1996, students passing for Junior Secondary Schools (generally considered to be low performing schools) reported lower levels of self-esteem when compared to students in five-year secondary schools (generally higher-performing schools). 

Within the current SEA exam structure, students’ self-esteem may be impacted by repeatedly not meeting the expectations in the classroom as it pertains to testing and then performing poorly on the SEA exam. 

Performing ‘poorly’ may be interpreted in a number of different ways such as not passing for the school of first or second choice, to not passing for any school of choice and being placed at a less preferred school, or failing the SEA exam and needing to repeat it.  

Another finding of the study conducted in 1996 was that students at the higher-performing schools reported lower levels of feeling close to their parents. Percentages of students feeling “very close” to parents were 56% at Five-Year Schools and 61.2% at Junior Secondary schools. 

This finding may indicate that students at higher-achieving schools felt more pressure from parents to do well which impacted the overall parent-child relationship more than students at lower-performing schools. 

The parent-child relationship is something that should be monitored as it relates to the SEA exam as parents often battle with children to meet unrealistic expectations set for them by others. 

Expectations that may not have any bearing on the child’s interests or areas of strength often cause stress fractures to appear in the relationship between parent and child, during this critical juncture of a child's school career. The impact of high-stakes testing on the well-being of children and adolescents is well documented in many countries that perform well academically. 

South Korea, a top world performer, reports high levels of suicide among teens and adults. In Hong-Kong, high-stakes testing was linked to less leisure or free time, schoolwork and family conflict, deprived sleep, pressure and stress and overall negative consequences on well-being. 

Many students who have taken the SEA exam can relate to experiencing some of these negative effects. 

In fact, while in conversation one teacher shared that her first form students are typically burnt-out from the level of rigour and demand placed on them during elementary years.

One may then ask, “What are the options if SEA is taken away?” The response to this question requires thoughtfulness, planning, and consideration of options for restructuring. 

There are several examples of societies where students prosper academically, have close bonds with their family, and report being happy. For instance, Finland tops the world’s education system. 

Some of the characteristics that set them apart from other westernized countries and developing countries are their lack of focus on standardized and high-stakes testing. 

Testing is something that still occurs in this society; however, it is not used for making critical decisions as is done in Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and in the United Kingdom. 

The country emphasizes minimal school days for younger children with some children in early elementary attending school for only 3 hours at a time on some days.

A focus on social and emotional development including character development, free play to stimulate brain development in the areas of critical thinking and problem solving, no homework, and sending students to their neighbourhood schools so the rich attend the same school as everyone else. 

And maybe the most remarkable feature is that teachers are highly valued and compensated at a respectable level. Can a model like this be translated to Trinidad and Tobago?   Removing the SEA exam will require major restructuring efforts in the education system. It will mean using evidence-based interventions to ensure that no child is left behind. Using a Response-to-Intervention system is one that would allow interventions to be delivered to meet the varying needs of students. 

This will need to begin in the primary schools where students are given reading, writing, and math interventions and moved along a tiered system until they are meeting their fullest potential. Students should then be placed at their neighbourhood schools (without high-stakes testing) and all schools fully equipped with teachers who can differentiate instruction for students based on their needs. 

It means a potential reduction in class sizes and continual teacher training at the local, regional and national level. It also means that teachers are trained to not only meet the needs of those who may be underperforming but also those students who are academically thriving or in need of gifted education. 

Extracurricular activities should be present at each school and at the calibre that is the same across school sites. It also means that social and emotional learning is integrated into the curriculum, recess and supervised free time is something that is highly valued, and an opportunity for student voices to be heard. The home-school connection is something that should also be fostered across socio-economic groups.   In considering these changes outlined, there will be major backlash and argument against sending students to their neighbourhood school. The United States has failed miserably at this and the application in Trinidad and Tobago could also have the same consequences if safeguards are not in place. 

It must be reiterated that all schools should be equally equipped. One of the major issues with students attending their neighbourhood schools in the United States is that the racial and social-economic gap often predicts the resources that each neighbourhood receives. 

As a result, some neighbourhoods receive more funding than others and the difference in academic results are evident. Trinidad and Tobago must be careful to avoid this scenario. Furthermore, the inherent stigma that has been attached to some schools for decades must be removed. 

Simply changing a school name will not be enough.  Again, restructuring and resources will be important aspects of the change process.   A final thought on this topic is that Trinidad and Tobago is in dire need of research to examine practices that are in place. As research-proven programs are implemented, they must be evaluated to determine continued effectiveness and need for change. 

Until research becomes the driving force behind education and policy change, we cannot move forward on this topic. It will benefit some groups to continue to perpetuate the current status quo of having the SEA exam in place because those groups are more likely to be successful on the exam with less evident negative consequences. 

However, to close the inequality gap and create an education system that is beneficial for all student in terms of their academic, social, and mental well-being, the change should be initiated.  

Dr Kezia Gopaul-Knights was born in Trinidad and migrated to the United States of America where she pursued her graduate studies in School, Clinical, and Counseling Psychology. She has over a decade of experience working in California public schools as a school psychologist fostering the academic and social-emotional growth of children and adolescents. She is currently an Assistant Professor of School Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles in the Department of Special Education and Counseling.

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