By Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Kenneth King, NORRAG NEWS’ editor, has asked me why Brazilians insist on participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), despite the terrible results that come out for Brazil every time. In fact, some countries have given up because of their rankings. Do I have the right answers? Anyway, it is worth speculating on possible causes.
The facts are clear. When the first results were presented, in 2001, Brazil was the bottom in a group of 32 countries. To be fair, it joined a league of big dogs. At best, it hoped to beat Mexico. But it did not.
Subsequent rounds of PISA saw a repetition of the same dismal performance. In the last round, out of 65 countries Brazil ranked between 54th and 60th depending on the particular subject. The good news is that at least 5 countries fared worse. The bad news is that more than 50 did better. Therefore, the question persists: why stay with it?
A first thought is that Brazil has a very open society. Debate and bitter controversies are part of political life. The PISA results do not produce any more noise than other issues and scandals do. In that respect, the country is different from Mexico, Russia and Argentina, where governments often suppress information or shy away from obtaining it. Kudos for Brazil.
Another relevant aspect is the very wide acceptance in Brazil of evaluations and rankings of students, schools or territories. In fact, few countries in the world can match such a wide and comprehensive system of evaluations, ranging from the second grade of primary to PhD programs. Not only that, but results are public and easily available on line. As a broad generalization, one can state that the quality of tests and the logistics of application range from fair to very good. Notwithstanding, some tests still have shortcomings.
Second grade students take a test, still on an experimental stage, to verify how well they can read and write. All fourth, eight and twelfth grades, public school students take a national test (Prova Brasil) and institutions are ranked according to the scores obtained.
At the end of secondary education, students take another test (ENEM), in Portuguese, Mathematics and now in Science. Schools are ranked according to the average scores obtained by their students. Also, most public universities use the ENEM’s individual results in order to select those that will be accepted.
In addition to these tests, Brazil has a unique examination, at the end of the university cycle. It is based on the curriculum of each corresponding career. Individual results are not public, but programs are assigned a grade, based on the points obtained by its students. This controversial initiative seems to have had positive results, particularly in the case of proprietary colleges (covering 75% of total enrolment).
The oldest evaluation initiatives focus on Master and Ph.D. programs. From the late seventies, all post-graduate schools came under the scrutiny of CAPES (the Education Ministry’s agency in charge of post-graduate studies in the country). Publications, credentials of faculty, peer reviews and other data are combined to produce a single number, measuring the excellence of each program. In addition to the prestige attached to high grades, the quota of fellowships of each program is a function of the scores obtained.
Considering all this, PISA is not such a big deal. Stakes are much higher for the other components of the evaluation game, in many cases, pitching one institution against the others.
Finally, perhaps one of the reasons for not dropping out of PISA is the fact that being a lousy performer in education bothers Brazilians, but not too much. Poor PISA results created turmoil in Germany, for an entire decade. Ultimately, it led to significant improvements.
Brazilians feel embarrassed by their abominable position, but not enough to make life miserable for those in charge of education. In other words, if the education disaster it identifies was taken more seriously, perhaps PISA would be dropped.
The silver lining is that, ever so slowly, the implications of the PISA disaster are being digested by Brazilian society. It is taking years, but it may be bringing some positive results; in terms of increasing absolute scores in the last PISA round, Brazil did better than just about any other country.
Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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