In Guyana and the Caribbean, 5 CXC/CSEC subjects with Grades 1 to 3 passes is the equivalent of a U.S high school diploma, the GED and the U.K GCSE  O Level exams.  CXC qualifications are required for entry to post-secondary institutions and to obtain jobs in government and many private sector organizations. Students normally sit the CSEC exams after five years of secondary education and the CAPE exams after seven years. School leavers are allowed to sign up for CSEC or CAPE as individuals or through private colleges and educational institutions. Secondary School students are all required to submit School Based Assignments (SBA’s) as part of many subject examinations, e.g. English, Math, and Principles of Business (POB). Other students are required to sit a Paper 3 examination in lieu of SBA submission. Submission of SBA’s is generally viewed as the easier option since the student obtains help from teachers and fellow students.

CXC exams are held twice per year, in January and in May/June. Secondary School students normally sit at the January sitting while private students sit at either or both. The most important subjects are English and Math, without which admission to post secondary institutions and eligibility for many jobs may be difficult or impossible.  Unfortunately, many students after the normal five years of secondary school attendance still fail to secure passes in English, Math or both and many fail to pass the desired five or more subjects. Consequently, private colleges and after school lessons catering for such students are in abundance in Guyana and other Caribbean countries.

The reputation of a secondary school, private college or after school lessons is built on the pass rate obtained by its students,  the average number of subjects passed per student and the number of subjects/grades obtained by the best performing students. This results-based reputation ranking system has resulted in a low-cost, high-impact advertising practice among the highest ranked schools and private colleges. As soon as examination results become available, schools publish, in the major newspapers, full page ads with the pictures and results of their successful students and a summary of the overall performance of their student body. The public anticipates the release of these ads and tend to choose the best performing schools as their first choice when selecting a school for someone planning to sit CSEC/CAPE exams in the future. One interesting result of this selection system is that most schools and private colleges do not invest much in online advertising, leaving that space to newcomers and institutions who cannot afford the luxury of depending on once or twice yearly newspapers ads for brand building and advertising. For example, in Guyana, private schools such as Morgan’s Learning Centre and a few others have built a strong reputation based almost entirely on periodic newspapers’ publication of examination results. On the other hand, newcomers like Computer World Institute are forced to invest heavily in online advertising through Facebook, Google My Business, and other online marketing platforms to build their brand. The online advertising strategy adopted by Computer World Institute and similar institutions combines online advertising with online publication of the pictures, results and testimonials of successful students. This strategy has proven to be quite successful and cost-effective given the relatively low cost of Facebook and Google advertising in Guyana and the Caribbean.

For students sitting CSEC privately or through non-secondary classes at institutions like Computer World Institute, there are a few important factors that affect their choice of a training institution or private lessons. The most important are affordability, accessibility, class schedule and, obviously, reputation. The more reputable and accessible the institution, the higher the cost of attendance is likely to be. However, for school leavers who consider themselves to be adults and who may have busy schedules or who may not be proud of the fact that they have to attend CXC classes, the choice often comes down to the average age of the student population, the required dress code and the class schedule. For example, many older students choose Computer World Institute for precisely such reasons given that many of the more reputable schools have student populations that are under 16 years old and do not have flexibile schedules that cater for working adults or persons who do not want to attend after-school lessons.

Because of the low pass rates for CSEC subjects in general and for English and Math in particular, a number of vocational qualifications are promoted as ‘substitutes’ to job-market aspirants who, for one reason or another may not be motivated to do whatever is necessary to obtain 5 CXC/CSEC subjects. The most popular of these alternate qualifications are certificates and diplomas in computer studies, business studies and health care. These qualifications sometimes serve to supplement CXC subjects but in many cases are accepted by small, private sector employers as alternatives.

Personal experience in preparing students to sit CXC exams in Guyana suggests that a poor foundation in English grammar and usage together with poor mastery of primary level math concepts, e.g. fractions and decimals, are the root cause of the low CXC pass rates reported in Guyana and other Caribbean Countries. In fact, it is easy to demonstrate that anyone with strong primary school level skills in English and Math can be trained to pass CXC exams after one year of intensive preparation. Morgan’s Learning Centre, for example, has obtained success in preparing students in their first, second and third year of secondary school to pass CXC subjects with good grades. Computer World Institute, on the other hand, offers a one-year CXC training programmes for school leavers and other adults which is generating promising results.

One question which has not been definitively answered is whether or not CSEC exams as currently structured are entirely relevant to the needs and realities of Guyana and the Caribbean. The curriculum for the Math exam, for example, is highly theoretical and contains many topics that are way more advanced that those examined in the U.S GED examinations. Consequently, many good students are robbed of the opportunity to attend post secondary institutions or to obtain good jobs simply because they were unable to master Matrices, Vectors, Functions and Relations and similar topics. Nevertheless, today the CXC/CSEC is the metric used for judging eligibility for higher education and employment in the Caribbean and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Frederick Duncan, Phd.