A recent decision by President Oscar Arias’ administration to eliminate national testing in the ninth grade has driven a wedge into the government’s National Liberation Party (PLN).
Francisco Antonio Pacheco, head of the Legislative Assembly, fiercely criticized the decision by the Superior Education Council to discontinue the exams, previously a requirement for entering 10th grade.
“It’s a monumental mistake,” said Pacheco, a longtime Liberation Party leader. “It’s an effort to hide the defects in the quality of Costa Rican education.”
Education Minister Leonardo Garnier, who heads the nine-member council, said the three-hour exams distracted students and teachers from true learning and led to high dropout rates in the 10th grade.
The move reopens a fiery debate that has international resonance: How do schools keep kids and teachers accountable without overemphasizing tests?
Garnier said students do not master ninth-grade subjects because they spend the first two semesters preparing for the October exam, which tests three years of material.
Then they goof off until school ends in December, he said.
The numbers show that ninth-grade tests do not succeed in weeding out underprepared students, Garnier added. While fewer than 17% of students fail ninth grade, that figure jumps to 24% in 10th grade.
Among high-schoolers, only the seventh grade dropout rate was higher, at 27%.
“If our goal is to raise the quality and coverage of education, we can’t continue this way,” he said.
The nine council members include former education ministers and representatives from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the National Association of Educators (ANDE), and regional education boards. In an 8-1 vote last week, former Education Minister Guillermo Vargas Salazar was the only member who opposed the resolution.
In past years, performance on the exam and in seventh, eighth and ninth grades determined whether students could enter 10th. Beginning this year, graduation will hinge only on performance in ninth grade.
The exams will be given to some ninthgraders for diagnostic purposes this year, but they won’t affect students’ grades. The council will also introduce two international diagnostic tests: The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-olds every three years, and Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which measures progress in those areas every four years.
Only one mandatory national test remains: The bachillerato, which high school seniors must pass to graduate. The council eliminated testing for sixth-graders last year.
Pacheco, who was education minister during Arias’ first presidency (1986-90), criticized the council’s decision on ninth-grade tests, which he said are crucial to ensure “a minimum level of knowledge.”
As the demand for skilled workers increases, Pacheco said, the Education Ministry should be strengthening its evaluation system.
The diagnostic tests, he added, have proven useless because students do not even bother to fill them out.
The national ninth-grade exams aren’t over for everyone. Students who failed the exam in October were given a second chance in December, and they will get a third shot in early February.
Michael Villalobos, 21, who attends night school, said he will take the math section for the third time next month. After passing civics, English and social studies in October, the ninth-grader didn’t attend those classes for two months, opting instead to watch music videos, play video games or hang out with friends.
Villalobos, who wants to go to college and become a lawyer, gives the council’s decision a thumbs-up.
“It’s one less weight on top of us,”he said.