Monday, June 25, 2007

There is a right way to do things, and a wrong way to do things. 

Ironically, due to recent events involving Venezuelan students I haven’t gotten around to an item that will impact future university students – the decision by the Venezuelan government to eliminate the Academic Aptitude Test which is what determines who is eligible to enter universities in Venezuela. The test is roughly comparable to the S.A.T.s in the United States and, as can be seen from this advertisement, like the S.A.T. has spawned its own exam preparation industry:

This year it was administered for the last time to about 100,000 graduating high school students.

Higher education, despite what a casual observer might think, has long been an elite bastion in Venezuela. Despite there being a number of large, and well funded, public universities the vast majority of higher education students in Venezuela come from the upper classes. It doesn’t take much more than a short stroll through the parking lot at the Universidad Central de Venezuela for one to realize that.

In fact, Hector Rodriguez, one of the students who spoke in front of the National Assembly two weeks ago gave a stunning statistic – while 80% of Venezuelan high schools students attend public schools and only 20% attend private schools 80% of Venezuelan university students attended private high schools and only 20% public schools. While I can’t confirm that statistic if it is even partially true it is stunning and shows the huge inequality in access to higher education in Venezuela.

Clearly, this is an unacceptable situation – not just for the hundreds of thousands of poorer Venezuelans who are left out but for Venezuelan society as a whole. No society can be healthy with such a high degree of inequality and clearly the Chavez government is right to want to change it.

However, there are right ways to do things, and wrong ways. In eliminating the Academic Aptitude Test the government has clearly chosen the wrong way. Sure, in one sense, the problem will be solved as probably more poor people who haven’t had access to quality education will now be able to attend universities. Hopefully they will graduate from the universities and go on to a prosperous and fulfilling career.

But a university diploma isn’t a piece of paper – it is a body of knowledge. If that knowledge is watered down because university students are less prepared then that piece of paper become worth less, both to its recipient and to society as a whole. Sure students will at least initially be happy to receive that piece of paper but if their education has been devalued they will quickly find they have been deceived. The fact is, in thinking about this “solution” to a very real problem, it quickly becomes obvious it is a quick and cheap fix that is in reality no fix at all.

In reality it is laziness and lack of imagination on the part of the government because there are REAL solutions to this problem. Rather than eliminating this test because it is an obstacle to the poor why not improve the poor’s education so that they perform as well as anyone on it?

There are many ways that could be done. For example, it is well known that the poor suffer from inferior schooling starting in elementary school. One idea would be to require all university students in the country to work with two or three elementary students and give them tutoring for say 10 hours a week. To make sure the university students take this seriously MORE testing could be implemented for the elementary students. If the young elementary students don’t pass their end of year exam then the university student responsible for tutoring them won’t be allowed to continue with the next year of their classes.
Of course this is just one idea and it may or may not turn out to be workable. But the point should be clear; if the government thinks hard and implements some innovative policies it should be able to remedy the great wrong of educational inequality while at the same time ensuring the type of high quality education that Venezuelan students will need if they are successfully make their way in the world. Short cuts like eliminating Academic Aptitude Test just won’t work.


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