By: Jorge Mahecha
In Colombia, there are national exams for entrance into superior education administered to all students in the last year of secondary education. Since 1980, these exams have constituted a prime example of the continuing tradition of evaluation of students’ learning in the country. Following in this tradition, the Colombian Institute for the Promotion of Higher Education, ICFES, which administers these exams, introduced in 2003 a new level of standardized testing: exams for students graduating from higher education, called SABER-Pro exams.
There is a specific SABER-Pro exam for each field of study: for example, there are different tests for students of engineering, medicine, law, etc. Nevertheless, since the second semester of 2011, a common module is being applied to all graduates: one of generic aptitudes. These aptitudes include critical reading, quantitative reasoning, writing, English, and civics. 145,799 students sat for these exams at the end of the 2011 year. These tests were taken by students in universities, technical and technological schools, and by the so-called pedagogical high-schoolers that is, those graduates of secondary education that then complete two years of a “pedagogical training,” which licenses them to be primary teachers. (Yes, in Colombia one can become a teacher without a university degree.)
Graduates of education obtained the lowest scores in writing, English, critical reading, and quantitative reasoning. Their scores were not significantly different from the certified pedagogical high-schoolers, indicating that the effect that the education departments have on their students in the development of abilities is limited, if any. 70% of the professionals in education in Colombia do not reach even basic levels of English comprehension, hence becoming the lowest-scoring professionals of all those tested by Saber-Pro. More than 50% of the professionals prepared by our education schools succeed in composing texts that, while comprehensible, are disorganized and address topics that are irrelevant to the development of the main idea. 70% of these future schoolteachers do not surpass the third quintile of performance on the critical reading test. 80% do not surpass this level on the quantitative reasoning test. It is from this group of professionals that come the instructors that teach math and language to the children most in need of a transformative education in order to increase their possibilities for social mobility.
The teachers’ scores are not surprising, if one sees the type of education that they receive: in Colombia, there are 1,297 programs directed towards a professional degree in educational. Of these, only 81 (6%) have what is called “high quality accreditation.” The other 94% do not have this accreditation. 50% have what is called a “qualified registration.” According to the database of information from the National System of Information on Higher Education, SNIES, the “quality condition” of the remaining 44% of programs is registered as “N/A”. What does it mean when the registry says the quality is “N/A”? For training in education, then, quality does not apply. For this reason information systems are important, so that citizens may see this desolate panorama. Assuming, of course, that they understand it.
Millions of children in Latin America are not receiving a quality education, simply because their teachers did not either. Their teachers were the same students that received a deficient education and that later set their hopes on a higher education to better qualify themselves, just to become victims of a new deception: higher education for a teaching career is just as or more deficient than the previous level of education. The majority of the departments of education in Colombia, of which there are hundreds, are profiting from the sale of teaching degrees, without adding even the least value to their graduates, by offering them an education whose quality is “N/A”.
If countries want to demonstrate a genuine interest in the improvement of the quality of education, then they should begin to bring into line the teaching degree programs, both public and private: verify that they fulfill the highest quality standards possible, and demand admissions requirements in keeping with the responsibilities that their graduates will have. That is, of course, if the issue interests them. If not, they can complain about the results of the next international standardized exam, subjecting teachers to public ridicule, buying a computer for each child, and continuing to watch disconcertedly as, mysteriously, the increases in spending on education appear to have such low returns. This and, of course, continuing to educate the elite in private schools, as those students do need the best teachers.