Several months ago America reported on the "Gender Gap for Development Goals" in Central and South America, especially countries like Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico--where more than half of women who work in non-farm jobs have no benefits or security. One reason for this, of course, is lack of educational opportunities. This month The Economist reported on results of a ten-year study examining math, reading, and science scores in Central and South America. One major finding was that a weak and wasteful educational system continues to hold Brazil back. Standardized tests are the tool that is bringing some accountability to education on the South American continent:
Brazil showed solid gains in all three subjects tested: reading, mathematics and science. The test now involves 65 countries or parts of them. Brazil came 53rd in reading and science. The OECD is sufficiently impressed that it has selected Brazil as a case study of 'Encouraging lessons from a large federal system'.
Across Latin America there is far more awareness than a decade ago that poor education is holding the region back. Eight countries in the region took part in the latest tests. Chile did best among them, and continues to improve. But all came in the bottom third globally. In both Panama and Peru more than a third of 15-year-olds in school are borderline illiterate, able to make sense only of the simplest texts. Argentina’s schools, which a century ago were among the best in the world, continue to decline: they performed worse than ten years ago, and worse than Brazil’s.
Barbara Bruns, an economist at the World Bank who has written a book about Brazilian schools, praises the system, created over the past 15 years, of rating schools on how much students learn and how many of them drop out or repeat grades. “From a starting point of having no information on student learning, the two presidencies constructed one of the world’s most impressive systems for measuring education results,” she says.
But the recent progress merely upgrades Brazil’s schools from disastrous to very bad. Two-thirds of 15-year-olds are capable of no more than basic arithmetic. Half cannot draw inferences from what they read, or give any scientific explanation for familiar phenomena. In each of reading, mathematics and science only about one child in 100 ranks as a high-performer; in the OECD 9% do. Even private, fee-paying schools are mediocre. Their pupils come from the best-off homes, but they turn out 15-year-olds who do no better than the average child across the OECD.
The tests used are those from the Program for International Student Assessment. This is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old pupil's scholastic performance, done every three years since 2000. The top school system in Math, Science, and Reading is Shanghai, China. Other top countries include Singapore, Finland and Taiwan. The USA is not in the top 10 in any subjects.
For a psychologist, this is an interesting development: it suggests that standardized tests are bringing a basic level of accountability to the Brazilian schools as well as other school systems in Latin America and elsewhere. These same tests, given worldwide, are useful in demonstrating which educational systems are effective and which are shortchanging the children. While in this country standardized tests often come under fire for "labeling children" or "not being a full assessment," here they are providing clear data that some countries need to do much more in educating their children. In this case, are the tests working as servants of the Gospel in helping to bring about educational justice?
William Van Ornum