Chile’s education system has embraced school choice and market-based reforms like no other system in the world, but on my visit to Santiago I heard many of the same questions about what to do for failing schools and how to assure educational quality that I have heard in the US and in countries like Norway, the Netherlands, and Singapore. These questions focus on what to test and assess, how often to assess, and how to publish the results, what to do about persistently failing schools (or, put another way, the persistent failures of policies to help schools improve); and how to ensure that municipalities, districts, charter operators and other public and private “school owners” comply with legal regulations and reach acceptable standards of educational quality.
Debating Testing & Assessment
Chile’s current national test, SIMCE, developed in the 1980’s and 90’s in response to concerns of a number of different groups. Some saw SIMCE as a way to check that public resources were being used appropriately, in a context of decentralization of schools’ administration. Advocates for school choice, in particular, emphasized that to have a “free” marketplace, parents and students needed information on school performance to make decisions. Many educators also saw the development of the test as the way to provide teachers and schools with information so they could make improvements. (For a history of SIMCE, see Meckes & Carrasco “Two decades of SIMCE: an overview of the National Assessment System in Chile”)
Enduring differences of opinion around these issues, however, have fueled a cycle of reviews, commissions, developments and adjustments in SIMCE and the Chilean approach to quality assurance. These reviews have included a Commission in 2003 that addressed questions like whether the tests were measuring the right things, whether the tests should be given every year, and whether they should be sample-based (like NAEP in the US or national testing in Finland) or census-based (given to all students at a particular level as are the tests required by the No Child Left Behind Act in the US).
A new Commission, established just this year by the Bachelet government, is revisiting many of these same questions. In this case, however, the review is fueled by some of the same concerns about the amount of testing that many are also raising in the United States. I was surprised to find, however, that even Chile does not require the same kind of annual testing in reading and mathematics from 3rd-8th grade that my children have experienced in New York. Currently, Chilean students are assessed in 2nd grade in reading, 4th grade in math and language, and every two years in science and history. A new test for 6th grade (at the end of what the Chilean’s call “basic education” has already been introduced, but with the concerns about too much testing the current government may stop it. This latest Commission is expected to share their findings with the government shortly. The Commission’s report will again consider how often national testing should take place, in what grades and subjects, what the results should be used for, and how public the results should be.
Making test results public & the “discovery” of persistently failing schools
Whether and how to make test results public remains one of the most contentious issues in Chile (as well as in many other countries including Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands). In the early 1990’s, SIMCE results were not published – even though the law governing SIMCE actually required it. However, demands to use the data for accountability and other purposes led to the publication of the results beginning in 1995. The data was used at that time in a number of ways including to provide rewards to some groups of schools and teachers and to identify schools that were not doing well.
In Chile the publication of tests results made visible the problem that some schools continued to get poor results year after year. Interestingly, at about the same time in the Netherlands, demands by newspapers to make public the results of school inspections revealed a similar pattern of repeatedly failing schools. In both countries, the recognition of persistently failing schools (which could also be seen as a problem of persistently failing policies) helped to highlight that information alone was not sufficient to lead parents and students to choose more successful schools, nor to equip teachers and schools to make improvements. In response both Chile and the Netherlands eventually developed approaches to failing schools that included many elements reminiscent of the provisions for failing schools under NCLB in the US. These included the development of expectations for failing schools to improve performance, technical assistance to help them do so, and delivery to parents of information about the schools’ performance and their options to take their children elsewhere.
Ensuring Quality Assurance
In Chile, as in many other countries, quality assurance in general, has also become a focus for considerable policymaking over the past fifteen years. Following the “penguin riots” of 2006 (named for the black and white school uniforms worn by the protesting students), improving quality assurance was the main issue around which those in different places on the political spectrum agreed. Those agreements included a variety of changes in educational regulations that are still being put into place. Among these are the establishment of two new agencies (an Education Superintendency and an Education Quality Assurance Agency) so that the Ministry of Education does not oversee both school improvement and the assessment of the effectiveness improvement efforts (even Finland is in the process of creating new government agencies to deal with the division of responsibilities around quality assurance).
In Chile, the Education Superintendency will be responsible for ensuring compliance with legal regulations (Norway created a similar agency and “legal inspection” after years of having almost no way of knowing whether municipalities were complying with event the most basic educational requirements).
Meanwhile, the tasks of the Chilean Education Quality Assurance Agency will include evaluating schools using tests like SIMCE; assessing the extent to which schools reach established learning standards; and assessing schools on other quality indicators including academic selfesteem, school climate, and healthy life style. The Agency also will be responsible for using these assessments to classify schools into performance levels (High, Middle, Medium Low, and Insufficient). While the Chilean classification will draw on a variety of data, over 60% of the score will be based on students’ performance on the learning standards (similar to the emphasis of New York City’s Progress Report on test scores, up until just announced changes)
The results of this assessment process will determine how often Chilean schools will be inspected; guide the development of plans or contracts for improvement for low-performing schools; offer information parents’ can use in school selection; and, ultimately, could be used to withdraw the Ministry’s public recognition of the school (the Dutch created their own “risk-based” process to identify schools they felt needed additional oversight and support). Notably, however, with continuing debates and disagreements around the extent of testing and the process of closing failing schools in Chile, plans to classify schools beginning this year may not be fully carried out.