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EDUCATION-MEXICO: Teachers and Students Failing Exams

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Aug 28 2008 (IPS) - Assessments of student performance at primary and secondary schools in Mexico have produced dismal results, as have evaluations of new teachers, who have to pass exams before being appointed to a teaching post.

In June 2006, April 2007 and April 2008, the Education Ministry tested thousands of primary and secondary students to measure their mathematics and language skills. The results were fairly consistent.

In 2008, only 20 percent of private school students, who total about 800,000, reached levels of excellence in the tests. In the public schools, which have 34 million students, barely 3.8 percent of those tested reached that level.

Furthermore, the tests showed that eight out of 10 students finish their nine years of compulsory schooling with inadequate or only elementary math skills.

Successive governments have presented education plans with different emphases.

“The approach at the moment is ‘testing to exhaustion,’ but we don’t see a real plan for educational change behind it all,” Catalina Inclán, an expert at the Institute for Research on University and Education (IISUE) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS.

As for teachers, in mid-August the authorities announced the results of exams sat by applicants for new school posts. Out of the 71,000 applicants, nearly 70 percent failed the exams.

This was the first time Mexican teachers have had to sit a test in order to be appointed to a teaching job. Formerly, teaching posts were assigned directly, with the intervention of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE). Some teachers alleged that jobs were allocated in exchange for bribes or political support.

“The student tests are badly designed because they measure the course content that has been taught, instead of skills, and parts of them are not even comparable to previous tests. They tell us what we already knew,” said Inclán.

The same is true of the first ever teacher evaluation, she said. At IISUE, studies were carried out on the performance of teachers in 2007, and the results were similar.

The point is that neither the very first standardised tests, the results of which were concealed by the government in 1996, nor the present ones, have been accompanied by a plan for using this information to redeem the failing education system, Inclán said.

In 1996, the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) kept secret Mexico’s poor results in school tests organised in 45 countries by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), in which Mexico ranked last.

According to Lucrecia Santibáñez of the Centre for Economics Research and Teaching (CIDE), “the authorities are carrying out so many evaluations that they haven’t given themselves any time to plan, or discuss, the results and what is being done to address the situation.”

The government of conservative President Felipe Calderón denies such allegations. Education authorities claim the results of the tests are being used to design changes in study programmes.

In May, the government and the powerful teachers’ union, which has 120,000 members, signed what is known as the “Alliance for Educational Quality.” According to this pact, all entry level posts in public schools and teaching career promotions are to be allocated by open competition.

The plan, one of many agreed between the government and the teachers’ union in the last two decades, also includes commitments to train and assess educators and promises to improve and expand the education sector’s physical infrastructure.

Inclán said that recent governments had signed agreements to improve the quality of education but that the situation has not changed.

Mexico would make a qualitative leap if it put an emphasis on improved teacher training, she said. But the teacher training colleges are not good, while in-service training and ongoing educational courses are also held at centres that do not uphold standards of excellence, she added.

Mexico’s low quality of education is a continuing problem, in spite of the fact that 24 percent of the national budget is dedicated to education, the highest proportion among full members of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Known as the “rich man’s club” of nations because it includes all the industrialised countries, only two emerging economies belong to the OECD: South Korea and Mexico.

In 2006, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tested 15-year-olds in the 30 OECD member states, and in another 27 PISA partner countries. Mexico ranked 43rd out of the 57 countries in reading and language skills, and 48th in math skills.

On the science section of the PISA tests, Mexico placed at the bottom of the list of OECD member countries in terms of the scientific reasoning skills of its 15-year-olds and their ability to think in an innovative fashion.

Political scientist Jesús Silva-Herzog, a columnist for the newspaper Reforma, said the Mexican educational system “does not provide the knowledge nor cultivate the abilities needed to dialogue with the rest of the world and compete successfully.”

The present education system “maintains, prolongs and even exacerbates the inequalities that were there to begin with, and keeps us at the bottom of a ravine which separates us from the rest of the planet,” he said.

“Neither do schools cherish children’s talents. We do nothing to encourage their vocations. The school system divides and levels us downwards, perpetuating inequality and mediocrity,” Silva-Herzog wrote.

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