Secondary students who make good grades will no longer have to complete 12th grade as previously required, Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced last Thursday in the House of Assembly.

The decision rolls back a requirement launched by the previous government that added a year to the secondary school curriculum in the Virgin Islands in 2016 as part of efforts to help students better prepare for life after high school.

Education officials reported at the time that VI students were receiving only 1,625 of the recommended 2,600 hours of preparation for the Caribbean Examinations Council tests.

But Dr. Wheatley said last week that he has listened to community input and reviewed the results of a study that examined how students with an extra year of schooling fared at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.

“I am able to confirm that, indeed, there were students in the system who benefitted from the additional year as well as students who were being held back by the additional year,” Dr. Wheatley said.

According to the new mandate, grade 10 students who demonstrate a strong academic performance will be able to graduate in two years rather than three, beginning in September 2020. To choose the accelerated track, he explained, students must attain a grade of B+ or higher and complete the same graduation requirements as peers who go on to complete 12th grade.

“In exceptional circumstances, students can qualify based on the recommendation of the principal of the institution,” Dr. Wheatley said. “Those who fall below the required GPA will finish in the three years that is presently required based on the present graduation requirements.”

He added that he will review the new policy in July 2021.

The study

Before making the decision, Dr. Wheatley said, he commissioned HLSCC’s planning department to study how the extra year affected students’ academic success.

Researchers compared the grades of HLSCC students who attended secondary school before the extra year was implemented to the grades of those who attended after, he said, adding that the study’s benchmark for “success” was a grade of a C or better.

The study also compared the grades of HLSCC students who came from public secondary schools and had an additional year of schooling to HLSCC students from private schools who did not.

Study results

Dr. Wheatley, who provided the December 2019 study to the Beacon, pointed to various details from the document that he said supported his decision.

Students from Elmore Stoutt High School and Bregado Flax Educational Centre, he said, made higher grades at HLSCC in 2013 — before the 12th grade was launched — than in 2017 and 2018, after it was launched.

He also said that in 2017 students from the private St. George’s Secondary School — which didn’t add an extra school year — ranked higher than students from the public ESHS and BFEC. In 2018, he added, students from the private Seventh-day Adventist School ranked higher than both public schools.

“In fact, in some instances, the private schools, which did not implement an additional year, had a greater percentage of A’s and B’s on the college level or had results which were similar to that of their peers from public secondary schools. This is also reflected in the CSEC results,” he said. “Therefore, I must conclude that research does not support the assertion that the additional year was a major factor in the preparation of these students for tertiary school.”

However, he didn’t provide a comparison between public and private schools’ performance before the 12th grade was established.

Study’s limitations

The study’s introduction, however, noted three main limitations to its results: the small and varying number of students entering during the specified semesters, “with the fall 2017 storms contributing to this fluctuation;” grade information not being filtered by programme of study, semester load, high school streaming and other factors; and the differences in course sets for first-semester HLSCC students who did or didn’t have the additional year of high school.

Following Hurricane Irma, the HLSCC student body was much smaller than in previous years, the campus was recovering from extensive damage, and many students were undergoing various hardships.

The total number of students included in the study went from 768 pupils in fall 2015 to 314 pupils in 2017, and back up to 567 in 2018.

Other factors

The minister said that other factors seemed to affect the results as well, such as the quality of the teaching, how well students’ style of learning was accommodated in the school system, the quality of academic support at home, socio-economic status, discipline, willingness to learn, early childhood education and learning disabilities.

“We would be much better served in putting resources towards the areas that research has confirmed has an impact on students’ academic outcomes,” he said.

Turning to school infrastructure issues, Dr. Wheatley said the ministry is still working with the Recovery and Development Agency to finalise the best design and layout for the remaining buildings at ESHS.

“We are also looking forward to starting the other buildings for the secondary school at Bregado Flax Educational Centre, formalising plans for the new primary school in Jost Van Dyke, and the rebuilding of the Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre in the newly designated area,” he explained.