Let’s Honestly Face It!

CPE and Literacy

The CPE is not a yardstick to measure literacy. The thousands who fail to obtain a certificate are absolutely non-literate and non-numerate after at least 6 years of schooling; a very high percentage of those who obtain a certificate can be called semi-literate out of sheer compassion and generosity; a low percentage of those who get through with ‘flying colours’ may be considered for the status of basic literates. These can write a short text of 150 words in at least one language, text which is grammatically correct, coherent and which respects the conventions of punctuation.

These are not gratuitous remarks.

Let us look at the 2013 English paper or the 2013 resit English paper.

It is made up of 4 types of questions:

a)     multiple choice;

b)     one word answer;

c)      sentence writing; and

d)     essay writing.

Multiple Choice

Question 1 (20 marks) is a typical multiple choice test. For each question/test there are 4 answers and examinees have to choose one. They are taught two strategies:

1.     Find a reasonable answer;

2.     Throw the dart (pik poul).

For strategy 2, i.e. dart throwing, they are taught 2 tactics:

1.     Circle all A’s or B’s or C’s or D’s;

2.     (for more skilled examinees) Circle A for first test; B for second; C for third; and D for fourth and so on and so forth.

N.B: I would advise readers to try this ploy. Download the 2013 English paper and answer the different parts of Question 1 without reading them – just tick or circle. Then find the right answers and evaluate your score. Most probably you will obtain around 5 marks out of 20 i.e. 25%.

Question 2B (20 marks) has 8 comprehension multiple-choice questions/tests (16 marks) out of 10.

So multiple choice tests account for 36 marks out of 100. It has been suggested that the first 25% of marks obtained from multiple-choice tests be disregarded for they may be the result of pure chance. If we apply this principle, examinees will automatically lose 9 marks. A question: How many examinees need these fortuitous 9 marks to get a borderline pass in the subject? Are these examinees literate? Other questions: Do we know what the prestandardised cutoff mark (the minimum needed to pass) is? Why is it kept a secret?

One Word Answer

Questions 2A, 4, and 5 are one-word-answer questions, each carrying 10 marks (30 marks in all). These questions do not test the examinees’ capacity to write grammatically correct and idiomatic sentences. A certain dose of chance may here boost up performance which does not indicate mastery of basic literacy skills.

It is to be noted that the first 66 marks or of the paper do not relate to literacy at all. Question: If examinees score the first 66 marks as raw marks, what will their poststandardised marks be? Will the MES release this information?

Sentence and Essay Writing

Question 3 which carries 10 marks requests examinees to write 5 sentences. Question 6 which carries 20 marks expects examinees to write an essay in about 150 words. These two questions are good tests of literacy and it would be a good thing that the MES discloses the number of examinees who attempt them AND perform well in them. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that the figures are quite low.


The Prime Minister keeps repeating that his plan is to move the country from a middle-income economy to a high-income one. He is right to invest in infrastructures (modern harbour, airport and road network) but if the issue of literacy is not attended to, his development plan will simply fail. Human development does not mean a smattering of several languages. Semilingualism and semiliteracy are not assets but obstacles to overall development. We must build a republic of citizens who are all functionally literate in at least two languages i.e. Morisien and English.


* Published in print edition on 16 January 2014

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