CXC stars

Top achievers from across the region gather in Georgetown

  • CXC awardees pose with Guyana dignitaries. Photograph by the Caribbean Examinations Council
  • Amlata Persaud of Guyana receives her award from Sir Keith Hunte. Photograph by Caribbean Examination Council

Some of the brightest teenagers in the Caribbean gathered in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, last December. They came from schools across the region — from Belize in Central America to Guyana on the shoulder of South America — to receive awards for individual excellence: not on the sports field, for once, but in the examination room. And whether they realised it or not, something else was being celebrated: two decades of professional work by one of the Caribbean’s most valuable institutions.

Every summer, thousands of Caribbean students — most of them 16 years old, finishing five years of secondary education — sit one of the most important examinations of their lives. From time immemorial, these exams were set by Cambridge University in England, and were known as O (Ordinary) Levels. But by the 1970s it was clear to educators in the region that the time had come for the Caribbean to take responsibility for its own educational standards and certification, to develop quality programmes in the Caribbean,  for the Caribbean. And so, at the end of the 1970s, the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) was born.

Based in Barbados, with a small core staff currently headed by its Trinidad-born Registrar Dr Lucy Steward, CXC is now firmly established. Sixteen countries are represented on the Council, which is chaired by Sir Keith Hunte, Principal of the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies. Certification and standards are internationally recognised, and its growth has been dramatic — candidates for its Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) have nearly doubled in the last ten years alone, from 72,305 in 1989 to 132,596 students from 16 countries last year.

Working with Caribbean teachers and subject experts, CXC develops the syllabus for each of the school subjects. Unlike Cambridge days, there is a “school-based assessment” component as well as a formal exam, ensuring that a student’s work record counts for something, and that results are not based wholly on a couple of high-stress hours in an exam room. CXC also develops resource materials for teachers, holds teacher workshops, helps with the conduct of national examinations where necessary, and supervises the marking of exam scripts — selected regional teachers gather for residential marking sessions in Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

Every year, the most successful exam performers are publicly identified and honoured. To qualify for consideration, students have to gain top grades in at least seven subjects including English and Mathematics; and competition is keen.

So the seven most outstanding students in the Caribbean for 1999 made their way to Georgetown last December to receive their awards. Three were from Guyana: Amlata Persaud (the best overall student in the region, and top student in the Humanities), Leah Bovell (Business Education) and Kevin Persaud (Sciences). Two came from Trinidad and Tobago: Robyn Knaggs (Art) and Sheramie Ceballo (short story writing). The others came from Jamaica (Gary Baugh, Technical/Vocational Education) and Belize (Elder Jimenez, Craft).

CXC has now taken the Caribbeanisation process a step further. Even after the CSEC exams were introduced two decades ago, students who stayed another two years at school in a post-secondary programme continued to take final exams — A (Advanced) levels — set 4,500 miles away in Cambridge, not in the Caribbean. These continued to be fairly rigid, academic examinations which did not go very far towards providing a “Caribbean perspective within a global context”, as CXC now aims to do.

CXC’s response was a new exam, taken at around 18, called the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE). Introduced in 1998, CAPE is a much more flexible programme: instead of choosing three traditional academic subjects, students can now range much more widely, and need a minimum of six “units” or credits to meet the matriculation requirements of tertiary-level institutions. Traditional academic subjects are worth two units each, while newer programmes — Caribbean Studies, Communication Studies, Functional French or Spanish, Statistical Analysis, Information Technology — are single-unit courses. So students can go for breadth or for depth, or a mixture of both, constructing individual study programmes in a way that was not possible before.