San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tico Kids Stand Near the Head of Their Class

Costa Rican students outperform the large majority of their Latin American peers in reading and math, the United Nations reported last week.

Only Cuban students consistently scored higher than Costa Ricans on tests given to third and sixth graders in 16 Latin American countries, according the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Costa Rican third graders placed second in both subjects, tying with Chile in reading and with Mexico, Uruguay and Chile in math. Sixth graders placed second in reading and tied for third with Mexico in math, scoring below Uruguay.

Dominican Republic students fared the worst in both subjects.

The tests were administered in November 2006 to 9,936 Costa Rican students at 162 elementary schools selected by UNESCO.

Education Minister Leonardo Garnier celebrated the results, but warned against complacency.

“In Latin America, we’re at the top. But the big question is, ‘How do we play in the big leagues?’” Garnier said.“My worry is that the gap between the education we need and the education we have has increased.”

Uruguay and Chile, which scored roughly evenly with Costa Rica on the UNESCO exam, have done poorly on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered every three years to 15-year-olds across the globe.

Costa Rica hopes to participate in the PISA for the first time in 2012, and Garnier does not expect Tico students to perform well relative to other countries in Europe.

“Have we improved? Yes,” he said. “Have we improved enough? I don’t think so.”

The UNESCO study underscored differences among public schools in Costa Rica. Students at urban schools scored significantly higher in math and reading than students at rural schools.

Disparities in facilities aggravate the situation. About 12 percent of primary schools here lack potable water, nearly 40 percent don’t have adequate bathrooms, more than 75 percent don’t have libraries, and 70 percent lack computer labs, the report found.


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