Photo via Télam

President Mauricio Macri is describing it in the most grandiloquent terms possible, saying it will help the country figure out “what we’re missing” and “build the necessary solutions.”

Teachers’ unions are complaining bitterly and have gone so far as to set up roadblocks to protest. And some students are getting in on it as well. Around 150 students, for example, have been occupying their school in Buenos Aires province in an effort to repudiate it.

What is this all about? Aprender (to learn), a new, mandatory learning assessment test that which will take place today and tomorrow at all schools across the country. But why is it so controversial?

Aprender, or the “national education evaluation”

According to a government video (that curiously depicts students and teachers as cogs in a machine), “Aprender is the biggest program implemented in [the Argentine] education system.”

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In short, it’s standardized testing, or learning about learning, as its name suggests. The key purpose is to figure out what and how much do students know. The conditions in which the country’s students learn are also on the agenda.

The data will be used to highlight “successes and challenges in education, as well as certain factors that affect the education process.” The ultimate goal of Aprender is for “all levels” of students to be tested. However, this year, only fifth year primary school students and fifth or sixth year secondary school students, as well as a sample selection of students from other years, will participate.

That means almost 1.4 million public and private school students will be taking the test. And this is only the beginning. The government wants Aprender to take place annually.

What is it testing?

Aprender is testing students on four areas: mathematics, language, natural science and social science.

Cast your mind back to primary school and those slinky, identical multiple choice booklets you had to fill out once every couple of years with a sharpened pencil…

How many apples does Sally have if she has eight apples? Which shape is a triangle? Is this text about how to make jam designed to make you cry or is it a recipe?

The test also seeks to obtain data about the “conditions” in which students learn. “Conditions” is a bit vague but the government defines it as “teaching climate, use of technology, teaching perceptions, student and school context, among other things.” A more tangible (and controversial) example has popped up on social media this morning, extracted from the test.


“Do your teachers get angry with you?”

  1. A lot
  2. Sometimes
  3. Basically never

“Do you teachers listen to you?”

  1. A lot
  2. Sometimes
  3. Basically never

Who is involved?

Aprender is all about students, who, as we all know, are the future of the economy world. An accompanying manual prepared by the government encourages teachers to: LET THEM [the students] KNOW THE IMPORTANT IT IS FOR THEM, THEIR SCHOOL, THEIR TOWN AND THEIR COUNTRY THAT THEY COMPLETE [the test]”

But others are also invovled. Teachers, local government, “education agents” and “management teams,” families and society will also be called on to their bit to ensure it goes smoothly.

Why has the government changed the education testing system?

The government says there is a “debt” owed to public education in Argentina. Aprender is about calculating this debt, and repaying it. A 2012 report by the OECD showed that 53 percent of Argentine students were “low performing” in reading and 66 percent in mathematics. Compare this to 17% and 14% in Germany.

However, there isn’t a lot of confidence in the data and information gathered by previous governments. For example, the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC) fell into disrepute during the last government, eventually labeled a “lying machine” by newspaper La Nacion.

In this context, Macri has cast the test as a “truth” seeking mission. He claims the results will be as revelatory as data released by a newly reformed INDEC which revealed that 1 in 3 argentines is poor.

Moreover, previous education testing programs were administered haphazardly. ONE (Operativo Nacional de Evaluación, introduced in the early 90s and originally conceived of as a yearly test, ended up taking place only once every three years. There were also changes to its structure and methodology that made it difficult to compare results across years, one of the fundamental reasons for doing the evaluations in the first place.

Why is it so controversial?

Education unions are critical of the evaluation, which for them represents everything they don’t like about the new government, i.e, neoliberalism, blame-shifting and austerity. Education union CTERA, published a statement saying: “This operation treats evaluation as an end in itself and as a punitive mechanism, and will reduce teachers to mere ‘agents’ and students to objects of study.”

The teachers’ unions complain the tests are written by “external companies” that know little about the reality of teaching in Argentina. And the fact they are “standardized” means they do not take into account the “social context” and “resources” of students.

For the unions, the tests themselves could also be a launching pad to linked teachers’ salaries to performance. They argue that the problems in the public education system are the result of a lack of investment in infrastructure and teachers. So the only one who should be sitting the test today is the government.

Indeed, CTERA and SUTEF will be holding a “counterevaluation” over the two days of testing, in which they will grade the government’s policies in the sector. In response, Education Minister Esteban Bullrich likened the teachers’ attitudes to “getting angry with the X-Ray because the bone is broken.”

How would I fare on Aprender?

Can you answer the following question, taken from the sample Maths booklet, which nostalgically depicts a relationship between two wannabe Argentine rock stars?

Juan and Rodrigo are saving up to buy an electric guitar. Juan saves three times as much as Rodrigo, and between the two of them they save 2040 pesos. How much does Juan contribute?

  1. $2720
  2. $1530
  3. $680
  4. $510

I don’t know, but I do feel a little sorry for Juan.