What is Common Entrance?

Secondary Entrance Assessment

After hearing about this exam from the moment I walked into a school building, I finally closed my mouth and listened long enough to understand its significance. Common Entrance also known today as the SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment ) is the equivalent of a standardized test that is taken at the end of primary school for students between the ages of 11-13. The exam at that time was multiple choice and the content areas of English, Math, Science, Social Studies and Creative Writing were assessed. Today, the exam is primarily written response, but the scores are stil what is required for placement in secondary public schools. Prior to taking the exam, students select 5 schools in order of preference, that they would like to attend. Based on their score on the exam, they pass for one of the selected choices or elect to retake the exam. Students are also able to petition after the exam based on their grades if they performed poorly on the day they were assessed.

Admission based on grades is needed simply because the pressure placed on students would cause extreme anxiety and lead to less than their best testing performance. I can remember using the bathroom excessively the morning of the exam, and I know my fear of failure impacted my score. The goal is to pass for your “first choice” period, which is usually one of the prestigious colleges, or high schools like Presentation, Naparima, Fatima, and Bishops. Based on my own feelings and those of my friends, that is where all of the pressure and anxiety is built. You want to be able to shine bright because you are seen as smart based on your passing school. Many times as a child you know your first choice is not attainable based on your current academic skills, or the inability of your family to pay for additional lessons due to financial hardship. To make your family proud, you make that selection, but in the back of your 12 year old mind, you know it might be an unattainable goal at the time. 

This process was daunting, and I was at such a disadvantage because most of what I had learned previously, was of an entirely different curriculum. How was I supposed to make up for all of the years these children had been prepping for this exam with after school and weekend lessons? Many days I left school, took a maxi to Penal, walked about a mile from the main road, to the home of a young teacher who was highly recommended. I simply can’t remember her name, but what I do know is she was extremely kind, and her care and attention is what gave me the confidence to do my best. Her sister had gifted braiding hands, and many days I left with my hair beautifully cornrowed, and feeling not only a bit smarter, but pretty as well. I had long since stopped going to the lessons of Ms. Bon, praise the lord! On my way home I passed the home of my friend Karishma. If I was lucky, something full of pepper and curry was cooking and she would invite me over for a quick chat and a plate on my walk back to Siparia. It was in these moments that I enjoyed life, a moment of academic success and a hot, spicy mouth full of food.

I had cultivated a plan in my head that I would not select any school that I didn’t think I was able to pass for, my first choice would be Palo Seco Government Secondary and my second, Iere High. I figured I could pass for Iere, it was one of the best in the south portion of the island. But if I am being honest, I didn’t want to be that close to home, and Iere was no more than a 5 minute walk from my gate. The goal was to find a school that required me to jump in a taxi or ride a maxi daily! I did desire to try my hand at Holy Faith or Holy Name Convent, but only because I thought the uniform was pretty, the idea of going to school with all girls was simply not something I was looking forward to at all. Convent girls also had a reputation of being loose, and I was a shit talking tomboy, I was giving boys nothing but dust! The best shit talkers were with me at St. Christophers, and little did I know that many of them would follow me right off to Palo! 

If anxiety had a face, it was every child across the Caribbean during standard 5, preparing to sit this exam that seemed to be the deciding factor of failure or success in life. I don’t know if “Mr and Miss” understand the message of self esteem and how division based on assumed academic performance further damages the internal blueprint of creativity. I failed at this one test at 11 years old and I am now destined to do nothing with my life but sell bunches of seasonings for Sunday lunch in the market. Why was that narrative pushed down the throats of happy children making the best of days in the heat, filled with maximizing seasonal fruit theft, the evidence becoming a pepper laced bowl of chow! We didn’t want to be harassed by the adults using our school place as bragging rights in impolite society, it caused a wedge between our friendships. Secretly you wanted to come first in class and pass for the first choice school, but didn’t want to be envious of your friends who you loved because they were celebrated with a pass to Naparima Girls College and you weren’t. You saw it on the day results were published, the happy crying faces of parents, teachers and students beaming, or those with their heads down, slowly walking home with the blanket of disappointment that they carried, soon to face scowls or a beating. 

I have flash memories of so many children, we all seemed happy as we played during lunch, before and even after school. But many went home to serious life challenges, and if school is supposed to be a safe place, what happens when it isn’t? Many had academic deficits that weren’t addressed, intellectual difficulties that they were shamed and ridiculed for. Several were defeated and dropped out simply because of the shame felt from teachers and their own family for not excelling academically in what I call a hostile educational environment. In speaking with many friends, some who are still witnessing this treatment of students with their own children, they say the pressure and behaviors continue. Some parents have changed and challenged this narrative, but with others the behavior remains the same. Social media shows you that reality. Now those bright children are blasted across Facebook, Instagram and celebrated, while those who struggle are unmentioned and shamed for doing their best on a test that at most, should determine specialized school placement, not how you are treated by teachers and the community.  For the sake of improved mental wellness, I would hope that this culture improves.  Parents and teachers must begin to understand the negative message it sends to children who can do nothing more than give their best effort. 

Much Love from the brown girl, sharing short stories for Blogtober, keep writing, even if no one is reading❤️

Nyri~The Unnerved Traveler

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