An alarming number of children in the public school system are underperforming in math and English, test scores for 2012 reveal.
The results, released by the Cayman Islands government following a Freedom of Information request, show a significant number of youngsters in every age category are falling behind in the core areas of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Woody Foster, chairman of community action group, Literacy is for Everyone, which put in the FOI request, said the results were “shocking” and showed that urgent action was required.
Education officials acknowledged the Cayman Islands was facing a long-standing problem with numeracy and literacy. But they insisted intensive work was already under way to improve results and cautioned against using the data, from the first year of a pilot assessment programme, to make sweeping judgements.
They say the tests are designed to help chart progress over time, not to provide a state-of-the-nation snapshot of how students are performing. And they point to steadily improving GCSE scores as a better barometer of progress in schools.
The latest results come largely from new end-of-year National Curriculum assessments known as Progress in English and Progress in Maths covering years two to nine (ages 6 to 13).
The tests benchmark students against an “expected” attainment level for their age group.
The situation is most acute in high school with only one in five year eight students (11 to 12-year-olds) meeting the minimum expected level in English and math.
In the same year group two-thirds of pupils were ranked at the lowest possible attainment level in English, suggesting they are four years behind where they should be.
More than half of the students in year nine had not reached the expected level in English with 40 per cent ranked in the lowest attainment range.
The results in the lower age groups are slightly better.
The end of Primary School Keystage 2 tests, which unlike PiM and PiE tests have been used in Cayman for several years, show an improvement on 2011. But Caymanian children are still falling way behind their peers in the United Kingdom.
Roughly half of the children graduating from primary school in 2012 had not met the minimum expectations for their age group in English or math.
In math, 43 per cent of the 418 year six pupils who took the test reached the expected National Curriculum level four or higher, an improvement from just 25 per cent who hit that threshold in 2011.
In English, the figures were slightly better with 52 per cent reaching the required level compared with 33 per cent in 2011.
The scores would still put Cayman’s schools in the bottom 5 per cent in Britain, which just released data for 15,000 primary schools on comparable tests.
The UK government deems schools to be “failing” and targets them for emergency assistance if less than 60 per cent of students hit the required level at these tests.
Shirley Wahler, chief education officer for the Cayman Islands, acknowledged there was work to be done in the island’s schools. But she insisted it was unfair to make a comparison with the UK, which has had a National Curriculum for decades.
She said test scores in Britain were initially low but had steadily improved over time.
Similar progress is expected here, with the current set of PiE and PiM tests providing a benchmark to help parents and teachers see where each student needs to improve.
“This is the first year we have used these assessments. It is very much a pilot project and we were very careful to say to principals that we won’t use them at this stage to make sweeping judgements about your schools.
“If you really want to see an objective assessment look at the GCSE results where we have seen year on year improvement over five years.”
Results have improved from a rate of 27 per cent of students gaining five GCSEs at grade A-C (or equivalent qualification) in 2007, to 49 per cent in 2012.
There is no breakdown provided to show if this improvement is reflected in the core subjects of math and English.
Ms Wahler added that Caymanian children were on average five months younger than children in the same year group in the UK. LIFE chairman Mr. Foster, who runs supermarket chain Foster’s Food Fair, said his group has made the PiE and PiM results public to show the magnitude of the literacy problem in Cayman.
“The first thing is honesty, if you are not honest about where you are how can you get better?
“I think people would be shocked if they knew how bad it was. I want the walls to come down so we can have an informed discussion and come up with a better plan that has an opportunity to work. “As a business owner I see the results of this every day. We are not doing enough to equip our students for the workforce.” He said there were scores of concerned citizens prepared to step up and help. But he said people would not dig into their pockets if they did not know the scale of the problem.
“At the end of the day everyone is going to have an opinion but when you boil away all the nonsense and all the noise, these results are what is important and they are not good enough.
“There’s no other way to look at it. This is the future of the country and I don’t think it is fair to those children. We need to react fast and make some serious changes.”
He stressed the group had no political motive.
“We are not looking to blame anyone or be political in any way but we do recognise that this is a failing of our society.
“To not properly educate our children and not equip them for the working world upon graduation reflects on all of us.
“We want to bring teachers, parents, businesses, government and all residents together to recognise and solve the problem. Our future and our children’s future depend on it.”
Chief officer at the Department of Education Mary Rodrigues said reform was already taking place highlighting new national literacy and numeracy strategies implemented in the past three years.
“Improving students’ literacy and numeracy skills has been an area of priority for the Ministry’s reform agenda since 2009, and is a continued priority in the National Strategic Plan for Education, 2102-2017.
“While we are making progress, there is still much further work to be done to ensure many more of our children achieve success in these critical areas.”