No Joke: A 'Zero' Grade for Half a Million Brazilians

No Joke: A 'Zero' Grade for Half a Million Brazilians

Why you should care

Because standardized testing can help shed light on education gaps. And that might be the problem.

This winter, Brazilian high school students headed nervously into the most important exam of their lives. Called the Enem, it’s the standardized test that determines whether a high school student can be accepted at the nation’s federal public universities — the best and the cheapest college education Brazil has to offer. Hopes were high, but scores were low. Really low. On the essay portion, some 500,000 students scored a big, fat

0.

That’s right: zero. What? How? Why? Great questions, and Brazilian education agencies are scrambling to answer them. According to Brazilian education expert Claudio de Moura Castro, “Seeing poor results in writing is not a surprise; zero is a surprise.” The scores show one thing for sure: Something is rotten in the state of Brazilian education.

Over recent years, Brazil has consolidated the country’s standardized testing regime into the Enem, an SAT-like creature that consists of multiple choice and essay questions. That shift has led to criticisms of “teaching-to-the-test” that will sound familiar to U.S. ears. It’s also led to a distinct gravity surrounding the Enem. Last year twice as many students scored 1000, a perfect score on the essay, and only 100,000 scored zero.

Some theories on the 500,000 number. First, illiteracy. It’s hard to score much higher than a zero on a written exam when you can’t read or write. A recent study showed that 8 percent of Brazilian high schoolers are functionally illiterate, while more than a quarter of the general population is functionally illiterate. That means they can’t make much sense of what they’re reading, and they have difficulty communicating ideas in writing. When the essay section asks you to analyze a passage and respond, that functional illiteracy is a death knell for high hopes.

But lingering literacy problems might be just the tip of the iceberg. Castro points to a culture of apathy among students and their parents. Examiners aren’t to blame, he insists: “If they got a zero, they deserve it.” In any case, he says, Brazilian schools aren’t very good at teaching writing. And the written portion of the exam shows no mercy for those who don’t stay tightly focused on the topic at hand (this year: marketing to children). Stray too far, you receive a zero.

For that reason, Eliane Gonçalves, a public high school teacher from the northeastern city of João Pessoa, says she thinks the exam is meant to deliver half a million zeros. “The exam is intended to trip people up — we’ve got limited spots in our public universities.”

The good news is that students can take the exam again — that is, if a zero doesn’t squash all the hope and optimism out of their brains. As for the bad news … in Castro’s words, “Brazilian education is very bad, and the test measures accurately how bad it is.”

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