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After botched exam, Brazil tries to redeem its version of the SAT

Nearly 10,000 students are retaking the exam today in Brazil as part of the country's marred efforts to enable more students to attend state-run universities.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / December 15, 2010



São Paulo, Brazil

Thousands of Brazilian students are retaking their university entrance exam today in the latest of a series of Education Ministry debacles that have further undermined Brazil’s already precarious commitment to learning.

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An estimated 9,500 students in 17 of Brazil’s 27 states are being given the chance to retake the test after November’s original exam was beset by problems. Many of the students were given test papers that mixed up question and answer sheets, leaving them unsure of how to complete the test.

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The confusion was exacerbated by adjudicators who were unable to clarify the situation and nonsensical rules that forbade participants from taking pencils, erasers, and even watches into the exam room.

The government at first played down the problem, saying less than 3,000 out of the 3.3 million students who took the test were affected. But it later increased that number to three times the original estimate.

But even then, many teachers say students who should have been allowed to retake the test were not given the chance.

“Even using the Education Ministry’s criteria over who should get to resit the test – and that criteria wasn’t good – they didn’t call everyone who should have been called,” says Mateus Prado, the director of the Henfil Institute, an educational NGO that helps students prepare to take the test. “It was a disaster and the only way to reduce the damage would be to give people the chance to take it again if they wished.”

The mess is especially regrettable because it undermines what education experts say is a good-faith effort by authorities to democratize entry into the country's state-run universities, which are free and more reputable than fee-paying establishments. For example, all the Brazilian universities that appear in world rankings – though even these schools rank quite low – are publicly financed.

Until recently, most top universities held their own entrance exam, making it hard for students outside the immediate area to attend. Some of the universities held their exams on the same weekend and all charge a fee, forcing students to choose between universities.

Two years ago the government revamped its little-used national university entrance exam into something more like the SAT in the US. Candidates from all over Brazil can now take the same test on the same day and participating universities choose students from the national list.

However, some top universities opted out of the scheme. Some alleged scheduling conflicts but others hinted they lacked confidence in the government’s ability to organize the test.

It was a skepticism that was justified almost immediately.

The first attempt at holding the new revamped test was delayed by several weeks after the questions were leaked. Then, in another blow to the ministry’s credibility, a computer problem exposed the personal data of millions of students earlier this year.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the country’s public universities have adopted the high school national exam – known as the "Enem" for its Portuguese acronym – because it is cheaper and easier than doing their own, and also because university rectors are political appointees. But the recurring debacles make it unlikely that the Enem is ready to be accepted by top schools such as the University of São Paulo (USP) and the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), thus further weakening its credibility.

“The USP and Unicamp are still cautious because they understand that the operational problems haven’t been wholly resolved,” Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro, the former education secretary for São Paulo state, says in a telephone interview. “Their own entrance exams are well-planed and well-executed. I don’t think they are going to change to the Enem.”

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