One Test to Rule Them All

When they were just young Grade 5-ers...
When they were just young Grade 5-ers…

Imagine that you’re 12 years old. You’re about to move on from the primary school you’ve attended for what feels like forever, but before you go, you have to endure the one day that will largely determine what the rest of your life will be like. That day is GSAT results day.

The Grade Six Achievement Test, or GSAT, takes place in March each year. It’s not a pass or fail test, but instead determines which high school Grade 6 students will be admitted to the following fall.

Even I felt the tension on results day last week! Students were telling me that they “felt like they were going to vomit,” “felt so nervous they wanted to cry,” and that “if they did not get their top choice of school they would get a beating” once they reached home. Stakes are high, very high. The pressure on students is unbelievable. It doesn’t help that community members, parents and past students all crowd the schools on results day just to see where all of the students will be going.


And yet some students told me that they were “so excited”and “couldn’t wait for results day!” One even likened results day to the excitement he felt before going on their class trip to a water park.

In Jamaica, students do not simply go to the nearest high school to their home, as is common practice in the US. Students indicate their top 5 school choices at the time that they sit the GSAT exam in March. Different schools have different reputations, student achievement expectations, resource availability, and overall quality of education. In the US, schools that are in poorer districts tend to have the worst teachers, the smallest budgets and little access to student enrichment resources.

In Jamaica, students who score poorly on the GSAT are sent to schools that, not unlike those poor schools in the US, are resource deprived, overcrowded and underfunded. In an effort to work around overcrowding, some high schools will adopt school shifts, in which half of the students go to school from 7am-noon, the others from 1pm-5pm. Can you imagine what these high-risk, teenaged students might be doing during the time that they’re not at school?

Perhaps more harmful is the perpetuation of stereotypes like the one that I just detailed. Rather than scorning students who don’t get their top choice, disregarding them as failures or simply accepting that they won’t ever do as well in life as their higher-GSAT-scoring classmates, communities should be trying to lift up those schools, show their support, and ensure that all children are given equal access to high-quality education.

Students can learn practical skills, like sewing and farming, at school too!
Students can learn practical skills, like sewing and farming, at school too!

On the plus side, placing students according to achievement allows the more “serious” students to continue on to schools that require them to take their lessons even more seriously than they did at the primary level. On the down side, students who don’t get their first, second, or even fifth school choice are led to believe that they’re stupid, that they’re less, that they can’t learn.

Changes are coming to the GSAT horizon. This year, the Ministry of Education made an effort to place students closer to their homes or their primary schools, making it easier for students to get to school. The Jamaica Observer asked readers what they thought about this change, and one pointed out that this practice is only fair if all schools operate at the same level of achievement, that there can’t be “dunce” and “bright” schools, just high quality educational institutions. There have also been talks of getting rid of the GSAT altogether.

Results day has come and gone. There were plenty of tears, some of disappointment, but lots of tears of joy. Even though I didn’t work directly with most of the Grade 6 students, I couldn’t help but feel immensely proud of them all. As the school year comes to a close and the students prepare for graduation, my mind runs wild imagining what the future will hold for all of these darling, crazy, intelligent individuals.

Wow, that got sappy really fast. 2/3 of Peace Corps is about building friendships, but I never imagined that so many of mine would be with kids. I’ll miss ’em all!

Where will their feet take them to next?
Where will their feet take them to next?



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