What Follows Low Proficiency Scores? 3


By Gustavo A. Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant

According to the recently released results of the 2013 PSE (Public School Examinations) proficiency exams, more than half of all exiting Primary school students throughout Belize ranked poorly in English and Math. The results that were released to the media show that 53% of the 7359 students who took the exams were assessed as not proficient. The median score in English was 58% while in Math it remained steady at around 54% as the previous year. These low proficiency scores indicate loudly that our students in Primary schools are not learning as they should. Readers who follow my Guidance Counseling columns know that, for years now, I strongly advocate and assert that Education, especially at early levels, needs to be focused on successful “learning”. Low PSE results this year show, without a doubt, that there continues to be large disparities between teaching and learning in our Primary schools.

The results of these standardized exams deem that half of all students who complete Primary school throughout the country this month are “not ready” to enter high school. How valid is this statistic? At the outset, I submit that it does not mean that our children and schools are deficient. Moreover, no amount of finger-pointing or vocal public accusations against schools/ teachers will even out any disparities between teaching and learning, or improve student performance. Politicization of these results merely focuses on blaming, and adds to the trauma that students and schools may be suffering now. Let us, especially after this unfavorable assessment, respect and uphold the dignity of our schools and teachers, and students. To remove the stigma of failure, policymakers who manage Belize’s Education Systems can focus on designing and providing multiple resources for schools and educators to use to help young students learn to develop their inquiry and reflection skills. Rote learning and memorization of fragmented academic subjects, which we continue to emphasize in Primary schools, are not learning methods. Teamwork, experimentation, and problem-solving are preferable.

A thorough analytical study of the data (PSE scores) and all other evidence might determine why and how so many students repeatedly score lowly on these Proficiency exams. Without a doubt, there are multiple causes – not one! Leadership and vision, instead of finger pointing and blaming, will push educators (schools) to tackle the challenge of minimizing the contributing factors or causes why students are not reaching required proficiency levels.

Studies of proficiency scores in other countries show that low test scores for students, especially in Math, end up costing a country hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run. This conclusion translates into a dim prognosis for Belize. To improve this prognosis, policymakers who structure and manage our Education Systems must learn why students are not reaching proficiency levels on PSE, and then act to help teachers improve students’ learning methods and techniques. This large scale lack of basic proficiencies in our young students is more than a political concern – it’s now a nation’s concern because Belize’s imminent future is at stake. So, let us address and minimize the contributing factors to students’ low performance on these proficiency exams. However, the emphasis now should be on taking positive remedial actions. A well-defined and fully working Educational Remediation Plan for educators shifts more accountability to those who are responsible for managing our Education systems. Without a doubt, options abound for improving the proficiency performance of our young students.

Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor, says that very low performance on Proficiency tests should sound a warning. “If we’re going to grow at the rate that we hope to grow at, to address the many issues that exist in our society, we need to have a powerful educational system that is producing a highly proficient workforce.” (Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?) Belize should heed this warning. We need a strong Education system, at every level, if we are to grow as an Independent nation. Nonetheless, when Primary school students throughout the country fall way behind in Math and English (reading) proficiency, adding burdens of blame and humiliation to teachers or schools will not increase students’ performance on PSE examinations! Moreover, vulnerable judicial and law enforcement systems throughout the country might also be contributing to the low performance of students. Belizeans who live across the length and breadth of our jewel are not in need of scientific studies or statistics to prove that we’ve been painfully experiencing soaring crime rates over the last 5 years! Is there a correlation between students’ low proficiency scores each year and steadily advancing crime rates in Belize today? That’s material for a separate article.

The question that needs to be answered: why? A very popular post on Facebook claims that, “We don’t blame dentists when we don’t brush our teeth properly and get cavities. Why do we blame teachers when students don’t pass tests?” (Quote does not list author, but is attributed to The Diary of a Not so Wimpy Teacher.) I have worked intermittently since 1978, both as a teacher and Guidance Counselor within Belize’s school systems, with many “qualified and dedicated” teachers. The policymakers who structure, plan, and administer the Education System at the Primary School level in Belize cannot attribute students’ low proficiency scores solely to a lack of qualified or committed teachers. We boast of many intelligent young Primary school students throughout the country — look at this year’s PSE scores for highest scoring students! To be able to fully answer “why”, let us first study and closely examine/analyze the data on all students’ scores. Which students keep scoring low in PSE, and in what subject areas, and from which schools and districts? Let us first study and analyze the scores and all data and evidence “before” we start pointing fingers or hurling accusations.

Angry political finger pointing cannot assess nor improve on this critical situation. Let us first get to the heart/core of why our students score lowly each year in these proficiency exams. Thereafter, policymakers, schools, teachers, parents, and communities can start to join forces to work to improve on students’ learning abilities and performance. It is crucial though, that our Education policymakers find effective and powerful ways to build trusting rapport with Primary schools, teachers and parents throughout the country. Educators and parents, in turn, can learn how to be better equipped to positively influence all students, and help them to improve their learning methods, and prepare them to improve performance in next year’s PSE Exams.

Author’s Note:

These articles on Education are not intended to be comprehensive or complete. They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the community. When we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, we learn from our mistakes as well as success. Here’s to fining the best path to follow, fellow educators!

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About Gustavo Ramirez

Gustavo A. Ramirez is an educationist with many years of experience in the field of education. He has worked in capacities as teacher and guidance counselor in secondary schools since 1978, and has been instrumental in incubating and nurturing guidance counseling through systems, curricula and people development, both in Belize and the United States.He writes several columns dealing with the constant need for adapting and embracing “change” in Belize’s Education systems. Ramirez holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology (Guidance Counseling) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin. He attended Holy Redeemer Boys School, St. John‘s College, and St. Michael’s College (Sixth Form/Junior College) in Belize City.

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