Justice Margaret Mohammed

A High Court Judge has ruled that the Ministry of Education acted improperly when it refused to disclose the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam script of a pupil whose parents were interested in querying his results.

Delivering a 39-page judgment, almost two weeks ago, High Court Judge Margaret Mohammed ruled that the ministry acted unreasonably, illegally, irrationally, and in breach of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), when it refused the parents’ request in late 2018.

Mohammed heavily criticised the ministry as she noted that its delay in handling the matter led to the exam script being destroyed, along with all others for the year, before the parents received their response and the case was eventually determined.

“The conduct of the defendant in the instant action must be condemned in the strongest language and steps must be taken forthwith by the defendant to treat any application under the FOIA with the degree of urgency which the public of T&T deserves,” she said.

According to the evidence presented in the case, the student, who cannot be identified as he is minor, wrote the examination in May 2018.

Although the pupil passed for his first choice secondary school, his parents chose to question the 70 per cent he received in the English Language Arts Writing component as he was the top achiever in his primary school and won school awards for his performance in that subject area.

“The student’s goal was to place in the national top ten of all students for the SEA exam. He was devastated when he failed to achieve his goal as he did not even make the national top 200,” Mohammed noted.

The ministry was expected to respond to the parents’ request to review on August 20, 2018, but informed them that the process had to be adjourned due to technical error.

When the process was eventually completed, the parents were informed that his grade remained the same.

Concerned by the explanation given, the parents filed the FOIA request seeking his exam script as well as the individual scores awarded by the markers.

The ministry refused the request as it claimed that such was within the remit of the Barbados-based Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), which sets and grades the annual exam.

In the judgment, Mohammed noted that while the script was not in the ministry’s possession, it (the ministry) could have requested a copy as it contracts CXC for its role in the exam.

“In my opinion, given all the critical functions which the ministry performs in the SEA Exam, it would be absurd to construe the SEA Agreement as if the marked SEA Exam scripts are not within the “power” of the ministry,” Mohammed said, as she noted that there is no provision in the ministry’s agreement with CXC precluding a request for disclosure.

In the judgment, Mohammed also noted that the ministry’s decision in the case came 15 months after another judge weighed in on the issue and also ruled that the exam script fell under its (the ministry) remit.

In terms of the student’s grading scheme, Mohammed noted that the exam was not marked using the breakdown suggested by the student’s parents.

As she noted that the ministry did not reveal this when the request was made and denied it based on other grounds.

“For this reason, the defendant acted irrationally since he or she provided a response which defied logic and the action was unreasonable since there was no proper evidential basis for the decision in the substantive response,” she said.

As part of the judgement, the ministry was ordered to pay the legal costs the parents incurred in pursuing the lawsuit.

The parents were represented by Rudyard Davidson, while Niquelle Granville and Laura Persad represented the ministry.