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Distance no object with so far to go

Chile's national testing programme for schools has turned up appalling results since it began in 1989. Far from shooting the messenger, however, more than 40,000 teachers, parents, planners and politicians wait anxiously for their copy of the annual report. Massive reforms are under way, based, in part, on the results of SIMCE - the System for Measuring Educational Quality.

"Our educational system has been terrible for a very long time, and people want to improve it. That's why they're so sensitive to the usefulness of the national testing programme," said Josefina Olivares, SIMCE co-ordinator since 1990.

The programme tests elementary and high-school students' grasp of basic mathematics, Spanish, social sciences and natural sciences, evaluating attitudes to the system and students' self-image as well. On a rotating basis, it also examines students' creativity, their attitudes to the environment, or other issues, according to ministry priorities.

Results reveal that barely half the students at state-financed schools, where virtually all young people study, have mastered the basics of maths and Spanish, compared with 75 per cent of private-school students.

In a suite of neat grey offices on the eighth floor of an education ministry building in Santiago, Olivares heads a team of 32 educators, psychologists and administrators who struggle to keep SIMCE's ambitious testing programme running on time.

Every October, examiners hired by SIMCE walk into almost 8,000 grade 4 or grade 8 classrooms to test what 240,000 elementary-school students have learned since grade 1.

Similarly, in November, they test second-year high-school students in more than 3,000 humanities and 3,400 vocational schools.

Chile stretches for 2,650 miles along the Pacific coast - a transportation nightmare of narrow highways and dirt roads. SIMCE employs one air and five trucking services to distribute and return completed tests.

A SIMCE staff member accompanies all shipments, which are sealed for security reasons, and ensures proper handling in each region.

It takes 18 months to develop each multiple-choice questionnaire and these change every year. For each subject, SIMCE tests 600 prototype questions, selecting 120.

In 1995, the programme will cost US$1.3 million (Pounds 860,000) for the elementary level and US$1.2m for secondary schools.

But the programme has its limitations. The tests are inflexible in the face of local variations; the Ninth Region, for example, in the South, is always placed last, because, educators say, most students are native Mapuche Indians, whose first language isn't Spanish.

"We measure the absolute minimum that any child in a Chilean school should be learning," Olivares said. "But in the future, we should also be measuring factors like bilingualism."

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