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Standardized Education in Chile:

In Chile’s neoliberalized education system, high stakes, standardized testing has a tremendous impact both on students’ futures and how education is delivered in the country. This article explores the impact of the National System for the Assessment of Education Quality (SIMCE) and the growing movement to eliminate this system.

 Jorge Inzunza H.[1], Mauricio Pino Y.[2], Gonzalo Oyarzún[3]

The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973 – 1990) left a legacy that prevails until today. This inheritance can be seen in the neoliberal ideas applied to education policies and outlined by economists trained at the University of Chicago´s School of Economics. Among these policies are: municipalization, privatization, vouchers, destruction of participatory spaces for teachers and students, and the creation of standardized tests –the National System for the Assessment of Education Quality (SIMCE)-. The huge student mobilizations since 2006 have reopened the debate that had been silenced by the political elite.

The SIMCE was created in 1988 in conjunction with the notion of the commercialization of education being imposed by the dictatorship. From then on, democratic governments not only did not modify this idea, but reinforced it by publishing the rankings in the national media. Thus, the discrediting of public education that was promoted by the dictatorship continued through the “neutral” data provided by the SIMCE. Public schools attended by children and youth living in poverty were symbolically punished by receiving the lowest rankings. The affirmative action policies carried out were not sufficient to balance the results. In fact, they were suspended, to give way to accountability policies, under which all schools are pressured to meet certain goals – a framework set by the 2008 Preferential School Subsidies Law.

The massive high school student mobilizations of 2006 –known as the Penguin Revolution- questioned all aspects of the unequal Chilean education system, from its infrastructure to curricular definitions. The student´s bravery moved all of Chilean society to place education as one of the most relevant issues for public policy. However, the interests of the elite meant that the new proposals still followed the neo-liberal guidelines. What was offered by students as a way out of the conflict continued to be defined by post-dictatorship agreements. As a consequence, positive measures such as increased state investment in education were diluted when distributed without benefiting public education. At the same time, standardized education continued to be the main strategy for the state to improve education quality. Pressure and stress on teachers and students, and the individualization of school failure were aggravated by excessive assessment.

Fifteen SIMCE assessments were applied in Chile in 2013 –at five educational levels, beginning with 7-year-olds – while 17 are projected for 2014. Today the threat of closure hangs over Chilean schools if they are not able to meet certain scores in standardized tests –an aspect stated in the 2009 General Education Law.

The clear function of these tests under a commercialized system was analyzed by a group of university students (doctoral, masters and bachelor), high school students, teachers and parent organizations who reached the conclusion that these must be confronted. This is how the Stop the SIMCE Campaign began.

2) Stop the SIMCE: the first months

At the beginning, the campaign focused on communication through social networks and a web page, in order to circulate ten clear reasons for seriously questioning SIMCE as an instrument of assessment as well as to learn and share more details on the negative effects that standardized tests have generated on educational communities, thus bringing together testimonies and experiences from parents, guardians, principals, teachers and students. At the same time, a lot of good work was carried out with the media, by publishing letters and continuous opinion columns, as well as participating in discussions and interviews on the radio .

Because of concerns about distorted information generated by SIMCE, an Open Letter for a New Education Evaluation System was drafted which over 150 researchers and academics in education signed, including three national education prize winners. The letter focused on the need to denounce the SIMCE as an instrument of a policy that blames schools for the results and a situation where the fear of being punished and losing benefits has turned into the driving force in educational work. These researchers agreed to strongly oppose: the SIMCE annual census, the use of data to publicly single-out schools, the association between SIMCE information and policies to motivate results, reductionist effects on curricula, and the discourse used to communicate results which attempt to relate SIMCE with the quality of education.

Just as the campaign reached out to the academy,  strong efforts were made to from links with different social and union organizations, mainly with the Student Confederation of Chile (CONFECH), Chile´s Teachers College A.G., UNESCO, the Metropolitan Parent and Guardian Association (AMDEPA),  the Parent and Guardian Coordination for the Right to Education (CORPADE), and the two most important secondary student organizations in the country: the Secondary Student Coordinating Assembly (ACES) and the National Student Coordination (CONES). These last two convened and carried forward one of the most popular campaign actions: the funa against the SIMCE[4]. Although only 9 schools participated in the initiative (among them several centenary schools), this marked a precedent of organization, autonomy, and insurrection in the face of neo-liberal policies that, according to students, have deeply misrepresented the meaning of education and colonized it with the logic and language of the corporate world.

In terms of public debate, the campaign achieved its central objective: to question the SIMCE and make the dangerous effects of this instrument clear. It also revealed the level of discontent with it. By problematizing and de-legitimizing the SIMCE,  the possibility was opened up to continue calling on different education actors to become part of the national debate which will redesign methods of assessment and evaluation and their relevance to the desired educational goals. Specifically, to take up the challenge to create evaluation instruments in harmony with a new paradigm which sees education as a social right and recognizes the need to build tools that give real feedback on the progress of our students.


3) Principles for the New Model of Evaluation for Chile

The Stop the SIMCE Campaign has been able to unveil a number of limitations and dangers related to implementing a sole transversal evaluation system based on standardized tests focused on accountability. These can be presented as three central problems:

1)      Technical Pedagogical Distortion: National and international evidence on these types of standardized tests reflect that these evaluations produce distortion regarding what is considered quality of education. This reduces the national curriculum, limits pedagogical teaching practice and simplifies a holistic educational process to the results obtained by students on the tests.

2)      Promotion of the market: SIMCE´s logic is that parents will select schools based on the results of these tests, regardless of the fact that it has been demonstrated that this logic does not work as promised. Parents don´t value these tests as a relevant information resource in selecting a school. The educational market in Chile has become an extremely negative force, contributing to increasing school segregation.

3)      Harm to teacher and student health: Many teacher accounts on how these tests affect health can be found on the Stop the SIMCE web page, as well as other research that reflects on how these tests elevate stress, feelings of anxiety and depression in teachers and students, especially in vulnerable groups which don´t obtain the desired results.

The Stop the SIMCE Campaign has been able to generate important academic and political debate. Defenders of the system have argued that the central problem of SIMCE is not the instrument itself, but rather the political context into which it has been inserted, either due to inadequate application of the principle of accountability or by its excess, not favoring its value for learning and developing teacher´s capacities.

From the government, the main argument in the media is that it is a necessary assessment to guide educational policies, channel resources where they are mostly needed and support schools according to results. With regard to the movement of secondary students, who have refused to take the tests, and not even attend school the day they are administered, government authorities have reacted with annoyance, pointing out that assessments are not a democratic right of children and stressing that education in Chile is fundamentally parents’ responsibility.

For us the SIMCE is not an instrument of evaluation, but represents a reactionary, inefficient and dangerous model of evaluation in the current Chilean context.

Those who support the SIMCE forget that evaluations are a model and that every assessment is a judgment regarding a social practice, which reflects values that we maintain and promote. Jennifer Greene explains three ways in which evaluations are permeated by the values they contain:  1) Social and political context where they are carried out, which influences the purpose and audience of the evaluations. 2) Technical and methodological designs we apply reflect our ethical and political perspectives on how we build knowledge. 3) The evaluator’s role and responsibilities in society.

The SIMCE, like other accountability-based systems, attempts to be neutral, removed from these values, denying its profound political character.

Evaluation and assessment based on the principles of democracy, equality and citizen participation demand that we re-evaluate the role that this evaluation is currently having in Chile, to recognize the values that are contained in it and allow for the participation of different social agents in the evaluation process. This way an evaluation for democracy not only allows for different social agents to express themselves, as students have done, but also means that values of equity and democracy are respected. The Chilean neo-liberal model is giving way to a rights based society, and now that the Chilean constitution stands to be judged, it is essential to conceive of an alternative model of evaluation from that which we have – one that attentively considers student´s voices and is an effective support for teachers. In 2014, the Stop the SIMCE Campaign will continue and will intensify its actions, looking also to help place the issue of standardized testing in the forefront across the three Americas.

Note. For more information and contact with the Stop the SIMCE Campaign you may visit www.alto-al-simce.org ; also “Alto al SIMCE” on Facebook, @unanvaeducacion on Twitter, or write directly to altoalsimce@gmail.com

 


[1]               Psychologist, University of Chile. Master in Human and Social Sciences, University of Paris 10, Nanterre (France). PhD © in Education, UNICAMP (Brazil). Member of Halt the SIMCE Campaign.

[2]               Psychologist and Master in Ethnopsychology, Catholic University of Valparaiso (Chile). Doctoral Student in Education Policies, Organization and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (US). Subscriber to the Halt the SIMCE Campaign.

[3]               Fifth year student of Pedagogy in English and 2013 Vicepresident of the Alberto Hurtado University Students Federation (Chile).  Researcher at the Studies Centre of FECH and member of Halt the SIMCE Campaign.

[4]               Funa is a Chilean idiom used to denounce and mobilize against someone or a situation; it was widely used in the context of pending trials for human rights abuses during the military dictatorship.

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