The SEA exam is a secondary school placement exam that some say is as relevant as Pastor Cuffie’s hairstyle or a degree from the University of the West Indies. Every year, about 17,000 children as young as Eleven, write the SEA exam.
Every year, parents and other educated people call for the exam to be abolished, citing the negative impacts it has on children and society: depression, self-harm, in some cases physical and mental abuse. Racial and ethnic inequality.
But it’s 2020 and the exam is still around
In early January the ministry announced That 19,363 students will write the exam. 9,772 males and 9,551 females. Now, I know that calculators aren’t allowed in the sea exam but I didn’t know calculators aren’t allowed in the ministry of education. Because 9772 males plus 9551 females is 19323 students. Not 19363. Unless
Although the Ministry of Education will tell you that they’re looking for an alternative method for transitioning students, they are yet to come up with a formula that wouldn’t offend the church and other religious groups.
Religious groups have a very important role in this story.
Parents suffer too. Can you imagine having a child that writes the exam twice and passes for their last choice. Twice.
“Dear Ministry of Education, for ‘security’ reasons please don’t publish my child’s name in the daily newspapers.”
Placement in a secondary School is based on merit, choice of schools and gender. At least that’s what they say.
Each school has cut-off scores, which is an established score used to filter out unqualified candidates. Apparently, these scores change from year to year.
So, based on an unofficial document from 2008, the cut-off scores for El Dorado West Secondary was 55 – 85%. And the cut-off scores for Hillview College and St Joseph’s CORNVENT were 90 – 99%.
It sounds fair and straightforward, right?
Not every one thinks so. And that includes some politicians and leading thinkers.
Despite all the concerns, however, we’re in 2019 and the the exam is still around and, Like the PNM and the UNC, it’s showing no sign of going anywhere. No matter how hard you try to get rid of it
Like everything else the SEA exam has positives and negatives. Let’s start with the positives.
SEA or Common Entrance results quickly help you establish how bright or duncy someone is. For example when I wrote Common Entrance, my four choices were St George’s College, Tunapuna Secondary, St Joseph’s CORNVENT and El Dorado Secondary. My parents didn’t interfere. They should have. But they didn’t. The only thing they asked me was:
“What about Hillview College?”
And I said, “Nah that school have too much man.”
Long story short, I didn’t pass for CORNVENT.
I passed for my last choice which, back then, made me the dunciest child in the family.
But, all that changed.
Time passed. I studied hard. I worked hard.
And, years later, my cousin failed Common Entrance twice.
To this day, she’s the dunciest person in our family. In fact, she still works in a gas station. Yes; The Common Entrance Curse is real. Everyone knows that if you fail Common Entrance the only place you can find work is in a gas station. It’s on the application form. You have to tick it off. I failed Common Entrance twice.
SEA or Common Entrance helps you figure out how old someone is. If someone says “Common Entrance”, you know they were born before 1989. So, if she wrote “SEA” and you wrote “Common Entrance”, chances are, she’s too young for you.
This article isn’t an argument for or against the SEA exam. It isn’t about alternatives like zoning or alternative education systems. This article is a look back at the evolution of the secondary placement exam and the role of politics and religion in education. We want to find out if, historically, secondary school placement exams have led to social and ethnic problems in Trinidad and Tobago.
Before SEA, there was the Common Entrance Exam and before that the College Exhibition Exam. As far back as 1835 there were demoninational primary and single-sex secondary schools.
- St. Mary’s College
- St. Joseph’s CORNVENT
- Naparima Girls
- Presentation College.
- A.S.J.A.Boys and Girls.
- Vishnu Boys’ Hindu College
Because these denominational performed consistently in various spheres they developed a reputation. They became first choice schools. The prestige schools. Since colonial times, secondary education was highly valued. It had to be good right? It came from England. White man thing. But, Before 1960, places in schools were restricted.
Limited space, high demand and stiff competition meant some method of selection was required. Records from back then highlight negative consequences: Segregation. Bright students in one class. The “duncy head” ones in another.
- Extra lessons. Before and after school. During lunch. During holidays.
- Focus on the examination versus the full syllabus.
- Heavy books. Heavy bags.
- Bosee back children.
Sounds familiar, right?
Despite criticisms, the system survived. It evolved into Common Entrance.
For political mileage, the government did something in 1960 that would inadvertently fuel division and discord.
They signed an agreement called the Concordat of 1960. A Concordat is not a plane. That’s the Concorde. A Concordat is an agreement or treaty, especially one between the Vatican and a secular government.
For some reason the word Concordat reminds me of video games.
Understanding the Concordat requires a little bit of backstory.
Trinidad’s first prime minister, Eric Williams wanted a secondary education for all and promised changes, sweeping changes that would affect denominational schools.
The government had two good reasons for wanting to curb religious interests.
- One: to merge the diverse population into a functioning state and not separate children along religious lines.
- And two: the government wanted to give equal opportunity to all.
Yet (according to one article) the religious schools are more blessed.
They cater to higher-income students, receive government subsidies and are more successful than state schools in raising private funds.
But the different religious interests, led by and perhaps inspired by the Catholic Church, saw these changes as a threat to their followers, communities and the coins in the collection plate.
So the religious bodies pushed back more than Farmer Nappy’s hairline.
The government, fearing the impact the Catholic Church could have on an upcoming election signed the Concordat, which also bought the government time to organise a state-run school system.
Ahhh! I now know why the the word Concordat reminds me of video games. Somebody ever ask you if you play this game or that game, and you’re like, “Yeahhhhhhhhh; I concordat already!”
Now, The Concordat opened previously closed doors for school children, because,
based on the agreement denominational schools would accept 80% of students based on their performance in the Common Entrance Exam.
The Concordat also assures the preservation of the character of the denominational schools. To this day, The State assists denominational schools: paying teachers, supplying textbooks, providing security etc. And It gives denominational schools, the right to
* veto or reject books (which is reasonable, right?)
* handpick 20% of their annual intake regardless of a student’s performance
(which, rumour has it, works well for rich people with “duncy” children.)
* reject teachers.
In 2018, a Hindu school prevented a Muslim trainee teacher from wearing her hijab.
So while Section 4 of Trinidad’s constitution upholds a citizen’s right to religious expression, the Concordat gives denominational schools the right to
reject teachers based on moral or religious grounds.
Politicians talk about reviewing the document.
To accommodate even more students they implemented a two-shift system. More schools meant more votes.
Former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday vowed to get rid of the Common Entrance exam.
This is back in 1998, 12 years before his former minister of education, Kamla Persad-Bissessar got rid of him.
In the UNC’s 2002 manifesto, current opposition leader, Kamla Persad Bissessa boasts about three things:
- The abolition of the common entrance.
- The introduction of the SEA exam AND universal secondary education.
- To facilitate Education for All , the UNC built 29 new secondary schools.
More schools. More votes.
Education went from being a privilege to being a right. Pass or fail, every student progressed into secondary school. Because every student was guaranteed a place, the exam was no longer about placement. It was about who got into a prestige school.
In 2014, ALTA’s founder, Paula Lucie-Smith, described the abolition of the common entrance exam and the introduction of universal secondary education as a disastrous decision that placed hundreds of non-readers in secondary schools. Students who had not mastered the primary curriculum were expected to do a secondary curriculum.
Research links deliquency and violence with illiteracy.
In an article ‘Anger pervades our secondary schools’ she writes ‘Politics should not dictate education policies’.
So let me get this straight. No politics. No religion.
In 2012, to develop well-rounded students, a Continous Assessment Programme was introduced.
The component was structured in a way to ensure students didn’t fall below the 30 percent bracket, which happens to an average 2,500 students every year.
Believe it or not there are cases where some students scored 0 in the SEA exam. which means they didn’t even sign the exam paper. Because, everyone knows, you get one mark for writing your name.
On April 1st, 2016, the current minister of education, Anthony Garcia scrapped the continuous assessment component. Why not scrap the exam? And why announce news like this on All Fools Day? And, have you ever realised that if you squint, Anthony Garcia looks like Whoopi Goldberg?
If you’re still reading this article, thanks for sticking around.
The inner workings of SEA student placement is ordinarily hidden from public view.
It’s a blackhole, dark and incomprehensible like the bags under Gary Griffith’s eyes.
Despite decades of exams, there’s limited data in the public domain. For good reason, perhaps. It’s sensitive data about children.
There is however one downside.
People are afraid of what they don’t understand.
If you watched Man of Steel you know that.
Naturally the lack of data and transparency lends itself to speculation about the placement process. Among citizens and leading thinkers.
In 2018, a detailed database of Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) results was accidentally published online. Remember the Concordat? The 80% rule. And 20% rule that allows the school to place students as they see fit? Analysis of the leaked data showed that In some instances denominational schools assigned as many as 33% of students out of sequence. Which might explain the “duncy” head rich boy or Catholic girl sitting next to you.
The Minisitry’s Chief Education Officer described the research as flawed. But, the can of worms had already been reopened. Girls are outperforming boys because research shows that girls are better at solving and creating problems.
Statistics show that Students from Goodwood Gardens, West Moorings and Bayshore are more likely to pass for their first choice when compared to students from Carenage and La Horquetta.
One researcher, in a quest to understand the racial effects of the 20% rule, used SEA results published in the Express newspaper and Indian names as a proxy for the race of children. That doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like it does but it doesn’t. That’s like saying every “East Indian West Indian” is a Hindu or every one named Ali is a Muslim or every one named Sauce is a doubles man.
Whether or not you reject the research, it shows an astronomical high placement of children with Indian names in prestige schools, whether those schools are Hindu, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Government.
In 2011, 14 students from one class in a Chaguanas school placed in the top 100 SEA students. Allegations of cheating surfaced. In an letter published online and attributed to Dr Selwyn Cudjoe, he wrote to then Minister of Education, Dr Tim Gopeesingh, asking him to examine the situation to find out whether anything untoward happened because, according to a leading “Maths Man”, unless the teacher was the most brilliant teacher and unless these 14 students were the most brilliant in the world, the chances were one trillion to one that such a result was possible.
The letter never raises the issue of race, but, it’s quite likely that based on the location, Chaguanas, and the surnames Cudjoe and Goopeesingh a lot of assumptions can be made. And these assumptions can divide Trinidadians into two camps.
In 1988, the Calypsonian Cro Cro, sang about corruption in Common Entrance.
Indian successes. Africans in junior secondary schools. References to cheating, favoritism. Gender gaps. Racial achievement gaps. Every year, the top students on the front page. A newstory here and there about one-or-two Beetham students who defied the odds.
Will these problems end if we abolish the SEA exam?
Or dismantle the Concordat?
Or will the trends continue?
Competition over cooperation?
Maybe you’re reading this video in the distant future.
It’s 2060. Rumour has it that people still change their surnames and religions to get their children into prestige schools. There’re even rumours of boys who had a sex-change and now attend all-girls schools.