• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Access to higher education: One exam, one door

Last week, 7 million Brazilians participated in a two-day exam to assess achievements in language, natural sciences, humanities, mathematics and writing.

June 4, 2013

Last week, 7 million Brazilians participated in a two-days marathon exam to assess their secondary education achievements in language, natural sciences, humanities, mathematics and writing. This test, known as ENEM (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio, the National Exam of Secondary Education in English) serves in part as an entrance examination to all federal higher education institutions in the different parts of the country. In the past, each university had its own selection procedure.

In the first half of 2013, about two million candidates competed for 130 thousand places at one hundred public institutions now using the ENEM as a requirement for admission. This is out of a total of 3.2 million places in all higher education institutions in the country (excluding distance education)— 2.8 million in private institutions where most applicants are admitted if they can pay. The total number of openings at federal institutions was 270 thousand, and, in public state institutions, 152 thousand (data from the 2011 Higher Education Census).

Although the unified examination system applies to a relatively small portion of higher education, it includes some of the best federal universities, that are free to use exam results for the selection of all or some of its students or in different combinations with additional criteria.  Recently, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the most important in the sector, decided to abolish its own selection procedures and rely exclusively on the ENEM results.

The reason so many participants of ENEM do not enter the unified admission system is that they may not reach the minimum scores needed to be admitted in their field of study at their institution of choice, or they simply take the test to assess their own competence.  Persons who did not complete their secondary education can get a secondary school certificate if they get a minimum score on the exam. ENEM scores are also being used in the job market to select among applicants.

The implementation of such a large-scale exam on the same day in the whole country has led to several problems of fraud that now seem to be under control. There are also complaints about the quality of the tests, particularly in the humanities and the way the writing test is evaluated.  Besides these problems of implementation, ENEM is strongly content-based, and, since all applicants are assessed in all fields, secondary schools have to organize their curricula according to the ENEM, curtailing their ability to make choices and diversify.  One of the original intentions of ENEM was to allow students to apply to universities away from their hometowns, increasing opportunities for those in more remote locations. However recent data published by the Ministry of Educations shows that the net effect has been that applicants from the State of São Paulo, who face steep competition to enter the prestigious state universities (that have their own selection mechanisms) are using ENEM to go to universities in other states, displacing the local candidates. This effect is particularly strong in medicine, perhaps the most competitive field to enter in public institutions.

It would be much better if ENEM could be a good quality assessment of general competencies and skills, which could be used by universities, employers and other sectors as one source of information (among others) for selection procedures. It would be better if, instead of pushing everyone through a single entrance door to higher education, the country would develop a diversified set of assessments, allowing for more choices by applicants and freeing the secondary schools from the current straightjacket of a unified exam. Unfortunately, as ENEM grew in size and visibility, the government’s stake in its success may have become too big, leaving little space for revision and change.


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