San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Students Protest State Exams Education Ministry Under Fire

The Ministry of Education building in downtownSan José felt more like a bunker than a governmentoffice Tuesday afternoon, with policeofficers guarding the locked entrances against acrowd of angry parents, students and teacherswho filled the street outside for several hours inprotest of state exam results that may keep asmany as 11,000 students from graduating highschool next week.Inside, the protestors’ shouts and chants echoedthrough the halls as Education Minister ManuelAntonio Bolaños, along with vice-ministersWilfrido Blanco and Marlen Gómez, met withprotesting groups’ representatives who demandedthat the exams, administered in late November, bere-graded on a curve.The dramatic afternoon, which began with aprotest march through town to the ministry headquarters,ended in an anticlimax, however.Representatives who returned to the thinning crowdafter more than two hours of negotiations drew cheers when they reported the minister hadconceded the possibility of a curve, butBolaños himself struck a less conclusivenote inside.“WE need to wait for the results of theappeals process,” he said, referring to theopportunity all students have to submitproof that questions from the multiplechoiceexams are flawed. He added theappeals, which were due Monday, arebeing evaluated, and results will beannounced Dec. 20.The state exams in question are thoseadministered to students in their 9th and11th years (the first and third years of highschool in Costa Rica). Students must passthe 11th-year exams, or exámenes debachillerato, to graduate from high school.This year, of an estimated 22,000 studentswho took the bachillerato exams,only 11,000 passed by scoring 68.5% orhigher, according to ministry estimates.Bolaños said this 50% passing ratecould rise to 60% once the appeals processis completed.THE standardized exams, establishedin 1988, test student knowledge of math,science, Spanish, social studies, civic educationand a foreign language (French orEnglish). The math exam showed the highestfailure rate, with only 58.9% of studentsobtaining a passing grade, comparedto 72.21% – after the completion of theappeals process – in 2003.At a press conference Monday followingthe closed-door negotiations withprotest leaders, Bolaños emphasized thateven one successful appeal could have asignificant effect on the passing rate. Ifofficials deem a question invalid, all22,000 tests will be re-graded without thattest item, he explained.Felix Barrantes, head of the ministry’squality-control division, said his office hasalready eliminated 10 math questionsbecause more than 80% of test-takersresponded incorrectly. This is standard procedureand “happens every year,” he said.STUDENTS, teachers and parents atthe march, which was organized by theAssociation of Secondary-School Teachers(APSE), maintained the test is poorly constructedand punishes students for theshortcomings of the Costa Rican educationalsystem.Victoria León said she attended themarch to support her daughter, whose failureon the math test will prevent her fromenrolling at the University of Costa Rica(UCR) in February as she had planned,unless the ministry re-grades the tests orthe university changes its policy.“She passed the year, she passed theUCR admissions test, she passed everysection except for math,” León said.“EVERY year the exam is more difficult,”Julio Madriz, 17, told The TicoTimes in between shouts of “Pruebasnacionales, ¡abajo!” (Down with nationalexams!) and “Bolaños, ¡escucha!¡Estudiantes en la lucha!” (Bolaños, listen,the students are here to fight!).ASPE president Danilo Rojas agreedthe test was “more difficult, and muchlonger” this year, and said students werenot given enough time to complete theexam.Oldemar Carranza, an APSE memberand retired 32-year teacher who led muchof the march, had another interpretation ofevents.“This is all linked to neoliberalism,” heshouted as the march began. “Policies fromforeign countries seek to dominate ouryouth.Barrantes said criticisms of the test aregreatly exaggerated.“These tests include the minimum contentfor high school and they are developedwith input from teachers. Also, informationabout the test is communicated veryclearly to both teachers and students at thebeginning of the year,” he said.He also said ample opportunities existfor students to retake the exam in February,March and April.HOWEVER, María Elena Salazar, afounding member of the PatrioticEducation Union (SINPAE) and 35-yearveteran teacher, said the retake opportunitiesare too late for students bound for publicuniversities, where classes begin inFebruary.“The ministry’s policies are creating abreach between public and private universities,”she said. “At private universities, ofwhich there are more than 50 in CostaRica, students can enroll on a provisionalbasis without a passing bachillerato score.”Students who don’t have the funds fora private university are therefore left out,she added.“It also worries us, as educators, that inthis era when so much has been discoveredregarding multiple intelligences, we have atest that supposes everyone learns the sameway,” she said.Ombudsman José Manuel Echandiechoed these concerns this week, and saidhe planned to ask public university rectorsto temporarily admit students who had failed the test.

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