San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Students, Minister in Test Tussle

High school students butted heads with Education Minister Leonardo Garnier over whether to cut a series of national exams required for graduation.

Garnier didn’t blink.

After a nearly three-hour meeting with 12 students late last month, Garnier refused to eliminate or shorten the November exams, known as the bachillerato. The students say they are unprepared for the tests because a 25-day teacher strike in April led schools across the nation to cancel classes.

The students also oppose the tests, they said, because the questions measure memorization skills rather than actual learning.

“We spend all these years working hard, and at the end of the day, we might not graduate because of these tests,” said high school student Alexander Astorga, who says he wants to study computer engineering in college.

The six three-hour exams test knowledge of math, science, civics, social studies, Spanish and a foreign language. Together with grades from the previous two years, they determine whether a student graduates from high school. About 37 percent of students failed at least one test in November, although they were able to retake the exams in April.

If Garnier won’t eliminate the exams, he should at least reduce their importance, say the students. The exams carry 60 percent weight in determining whether a student graduates, while performance in 10th and 11th grades make up the remaining 40 percent.

The students want to switch those figures so that the tests weigh 40 percent. Garnier said he would suggest the idea to the Superior Education Council. But, he added, changing the rules midyear could be unfair to students who are banking on the current ratios.

Eliminating the bachillerato completely was not an option, he said, as the tests are crucial because they reveal whether a school, district or group of students is performing badly. Plus, he said, “If there weren’t a final test, neither students nor teachers would feel any pressure to maintain a minimum level of quality.”

Still, Garnier made some concessions. He has asked directors at each high school to work with teachers and students to draft plans on how to make up classes canceled during the strike. He offered to show these plans to the 12 students, who represent the Fighting High Schoolers Committee, which claims to draw support from 30 high schools, mostly in the metropolitan area.

The ministry, he said, will also draft a brochure about the tests, explaining what skills the tests measure, how to appeal a score and options for those who fail.

Esteban Camacho, a student at the meeting with Garnier, said the committee’s “bases”would meet to discuss Garnier’s concessions.

“We knew (Garnier) wasn’t going to accept most of our proposals,” he said. “We’re glad he sat down to meet with us.”

On May 2, a protest against the exams devolved into vandalism. Students broke windows and damaged doors at the Rofas building in San José, where Garnier works, according to the daily La Nación. Astorga said students at the meeting with Garnier were not involved in the damage, and do not condone it.

In recent years, the Superior Education Council has eliminated national tests required to graduate from sixth and ninth grades. The bachillerato was discontinued in 1974 to appease teachers’ unions, but reinstated in 1988.


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