By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Millions of students across Brazil have spent the weekend taking the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio (National High School Exam), better known as the ENEM, which is the Brazilian equivalent of SATs in the U.S. or A-Levels in the UK. The non-compulsory end-of-high school exam has seen major improvements, but has also come under fire again due to attendance levels, disruptions and leaked questions.
This year some 5.8 million people in Brazil had registered for the exam, but preliminary figures show around 28 percent failed to attend nationally, 25 percent in Rio. Although this absentee rate has occurred before, some have voiced concerns given the exam’s new significance for students.
Since 2009 the Ministry of Education proposed all universities should use the exam as a standard entrance qualification test. While this has not been adopted universally, most federal universities (which are free) now use the ENEM exam scores.
Education remains a major challenge for Brazil and highlights the stark inequality the sixth largest economy in the world faces. At the same time Brazil is struggling with a real shortage of skilled professionals, the federal government estimated that the new Brazilian oil fields will require 250,000 new professionals through 2016 alone.
Exactly why so many students missed out on the exam is not fully clear, although some may be explained by the fact the exam is optional, free for many, and schools still provide transcripts to prove academic ability. Some may simply also no longer require the certificate, e.g. if they have second thoughts about university.
Education Minister Aliozio Mercadante admits that “space in the [university] system is limited,” and that it has been limited further for many white middle-class students after a fifty-percent quota was introduced earlier this year to increase the number of university students from poorer backgrounds, as well as certain ethnic backgrounds, which has generated debate nationwide.
It was also recently reported that twenty percent of 18 to 25 year-olds in Brazil are officially classified as neither studying, nor working or even looking for work, or doing so outside the official system.
However, the major problems besetting this year’s test had more to do with the running of the exam rather than the exam itself: sixty-five candidates were expelled from the exam hall over the two days, including some who sent SMSs or uploaded messages and images onto social networks from the exam hall.
The government said monitoring systems would improve and that the exam is not yet perfect, but emphasized that improvements had been made for the “second largest exam of its kind in the world” after China.
This year’s exam was more difficult than previous years’ after a number of complaints the test was simple for university purposes. Despite improvements, some private universities have told The Rio Times they remain wary of the exam and will “wait until the creases have been ironed out.”
The ENEM tests candidates’ knowledge across a range of disciplines, including sciences, math and language. Results are expected on December 28th.