As in much of the world, people in Latin America are joining in passionate national debates on education. Most of the disagreements are about teacher pay, the size of the education budget, and cost recovery. Indeed, hardly a month goes by without news of university students protesting proposals to raise tuition or teachers striking for wage increases.
Tuition fees and teacher pay are legitimate areas for public concern, but they should not eclipse the fundamental question in any debate about education: How much and how well are students learning?
It can be very difficult to answer this basic question in Latin America, because governments there have only recently begun to participate in international studies that can put student achievement in perspective. The initial indicators are not encouraging. For example, Colombia was the only Latin American country that authorized the publication of its performance in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) run by the International Education Association (Mexico also participated in this 1996 study, but it has not authorized publication of its results). In that study, Colombia ranked 41st out of 42 countries, and only 4 percent of Colombian eighth graders scored in the top 50 percent of students worldwide.
More recently, a ground-breaking UNESCO study provided comparative information on third and fourth grade performance in mathematics and reading in 11 countries in Latin America (see “A call to action in the classroom,” IDBAmérica, March–April 1999). On average, students correctly answered slightly more than half the questions on a test considered far simpler and less demanding than typical international tests given in developed countries. Only Cuba performed far above average, despite the fact that it is much poorer, in terms of GDP per capita, than most of the other countries in the UNESCO study. Colombia scored slightly above average, suggesting that other Latin American countries would also do poorly in international tests like the TIMSS.
These lamentable indicators only underscore the need for more rigorous measurement of learning in Latin America. Fortunately, in recent years nearly every one of the region’s countries has adopted some kind of national testing system, in many cases with financial assistance from the IDB. Several countries are also preparing to participate in upcoming international tests comparable to the TIMSS. However, with some exceptions, the public debate still shows little awareness of the importance of testing. This is unfortunate, because Latin America faces relentless competition from other developing countries, particularly in Asia, that have gained measurable economic and social advantages through a serious focus on educational achievement.
What is needed now? First, the principal stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, industrialists, politicians, etc.) must identify and understand the importance of specific educational standards and performance goals, which can then be measured by tests. Second, the results of these tests must be disseminated in a way that makes it easy for the public to track progress and note differences among geographic regions or jurisdictions. Third, the quality of testing must be sufficient to permit fair comparisons and evaluations, especially of the “value added” of schooling.
Of course, setting standards, testing and reporting results do not guarantee improved learning, any more than measuring crop output guarantees improved crop productivity. But this kind of information can help transform the nature of the debate on education. A public that understands that learning is the purpose of schooling is more likely to insist that schools provide the environment and opportunity for such learning. And that public is also more likely to insist that every candidate for public office has an articulate education policy.
Only through this sustained political pressure by informed citizens can we expect Latin America’s schools to start meeting their countries’ development needs.
*The author is a consultant in the Education Unit of the IDB’s Sustainable Development Department.