The ENEM: A Giant Bottleneck for Brazil

Millions of Brazilians are about to take the ENEM, a national high school leaving exam, originally conceived as a mechanism for monitoring secondary school performance.

October 31, 2015

This time of the year is critical for millions of students all over Brazil. The entrance examinations season for higher education starts with the National High School Examination (ENEM), organized by the Ministry of Education. The ENEM was originally introduced to assess the quality of secondary-level education in the country, but it has evolved to a content test now used for other purposes. These include being used as an admissions test to the main federal universities and other public institutions, as a strong influence on the distribution of financial support to students, and as a requirement for fellowships and programs such as the Science Without Borders program.

There are almost 8 million students enrolled for this year’s exam, who are competing for approximately 250 thousand places in the federal higher education system, the so-called Unified Selection System (SISU). This examination is given simultaneously throughout the whole country, in the old style of printed examination copies requiring hand-written responses; this presents many logistical challenges and represents an enormous cost. Furthermore, the concept of the exam itself has proven detrimental to secondary education, as brilliantly discussed by Simon Schwartzman in a recent blog post.

First of all, the growing dominance of this exam—that requires rather deep knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, English, Portuguese, history, geography and writing— now effectively shapes the high school curriculum with clear disadvantages for those who will not participate in the SISU and to those who do not intend to apply to any college at all. As pointed out by Luiz Carlos Freitas in his blog, it is well known that policies based on “decisive” tests have become a serious detriment to the learning process of the students. Actually, it is worth mentioning that California has just banned its high school exit exam. The SFGate reported, “Some studies showed that many California students who didn’t pass the exit exam performed as well as those who did, when it came to other academic indicators such as annual standardized tests and class work, indicating that factors other than academic ability might be at play.”

In Brazil, we should develop a secondary education curriculum that can accommodate a certain degree of diversity, as has been done in many other countries, not a single curriculum oriented to an examination that is not relevant to all. A common, general education core should be the basis of all programs, followed by elective paths that offer either a more specific and deeper knowledge for those who want to pursue further academic studies or a more specialized higher education career or professional or technical preparation for graduates who will enter the labor market upon completion of studies. As pointed out by Schwarztman, “the high school must be a period of training and qualification, general and professional, and not a long preparatory course to a college that very few will attend”. Thus, the ENEM would need to be modified, focusing on the evaluation of the secondary level of instruction, taking into account the inevitable diversity students and student objectives within the system. It should be a general knowledge test with a focus on communication and mathematical reasoning with different evaluations for the different paths that will be pursued by different students, including a certification system for the technical and professional careers.

From the logistics viewpoint, it is clear that the old model of printed tests applied all over the country is insane, and the exam should be offered at different moments and in different locations, using modern communication and information technologies and devices, as used to administering tests elsewhere around the globe.

One of the main justifications of the “unified entrance character” of the ENEM was that it would make access to higher education more democratic, because it would allow students from any town to apply for a place at any federal university anywhere in the country. However, besides the lack of financial support for students to move to other places to study, the application of a massive test creates an even more elitist situation. HEIs located in regions far from the more developed part of the country have some of their degree programs filled with students who have relocated from wealthier region and skewing the local applicant pool. This pushes cut-off scores higher, and the universities lose the possibility of selecting students more suited to the institution’s professional and pedagogical objectives. Even with the recent policy of reserving a minimum of 50% of the new enrollment with quotas for students from certain racial groups or low socio-economic status, the funnel seems to get even more competitive, exaggerating further inequitable access to tertiary education. In the 2015 selection process, for example, the ration of applications per place in the quota group was higher than in the open group (28 v. 25.7).  

As a matter of fact, previous studies indicate that the great majority of seats at federal universities in Brazil will continue to be occupied by students who come from more educated families, who studied in good private schools or the few public schools of excellence that exist around the country. Evidently, this has a direct correlation with the socio-economic status of the family, leading to an asymmetry in the selection process, perpetuating the inequalities of the Brazilian society. This is another example of the many challenges that Brazil must immediately face, especially in education, in order to continue development towards a more just and democratic country.



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