Protests Against Teaching in Mexico

K-12 Testing

As a result of the administration of a new city-wide standardized test in Mexico City, parents, teachers, students, researchers and even some members of the national Congress took to the streets of the nation's capital from August 2 until mid-September, 1996.


Four thousand people marched to Los Pinos, the executive residence, demanding to be received by the presidential staff. One morning, protestors encircled the Mexican Stock Market, forcing it to close. Almost every day for weeks, parents and their children blocked automobile traffic in downtown Mexico City, one day causing cancellation of a tour of some of the nation's monuments by the Prime Minister of Japan. The main Ministry of Education building was closed for days.


The cause of the protest was a sudden decision by the Federal Ministry of Education to require all students from Mexico City and neighboring counties in the state that surrounds the Federal District to take a new exam if they wanted to continue public Educacion Media Superior, a three-year high school beginning at about age 16 that precedes higher education. The Federal Ministry of Education administers most of the schools of Mexico City.


A private agency created by the government designed the 128-item, multiple-choice standardized test, which covered subjects such as math, Spanish, biology, history, and chemistry. More than a quarter million students had to pay about $13 each to take the exam, even though the high schools are public. (The Mexican minimum wage is about $3.00 per day, and over half the nation lives on less than this amount.)


Each student had to prepare a list of 30 schools where he or she wanted to apply. A computer then matched students test scores with available slots and assigned each student to a school.


Causes of Protest

The government miscalculated the demand for high school slots and did not have enough capacity for all 262,000 students who took the test. Some students and parents went to their assigned school only to find it was not yet built. Previously, each high school had its own admissions process, some of which utilized standardized tests. While undercapacity previusly existed, focusing all decision-making on one exam and promising space for all fed the anger.


The test had the implicit objective of channeling students with lower scores to technical institutions. Of the 110 schools, 78 are technical, so students had to include many of them in their preference list, regardless of their educational interest. Thus, thousands of students were assigned to schools they did not want to attend. Some only offered programs of no interest to the student. Also, many students were assigned schools requiring them to travel two hours each way.


Even students with high scores for example, 96 out of 128 were often sent to their 20th or lower choice. If their score was not high enough to get them into their first choice, the computer would send them to their second option, but there they had to queue behind all those who had that school as a first option. It was therefore easy to enter a free fall through the list of preferences. The assigned school was final, with no appeal possible.


Standardized testing is fairly new in Mexico. Criticisms of testing raised in the U.S. and other nations were not heeded by the government. Literature from FairTest was crucial in starting a discussion about the limitations and problems of using such a test as the sole criterion for making decisions about students.


The British Columbia (Canada) Teachers Federation supported the movement by sending a letter of protest to the President of Mexico arguing that studies show other means of evaluation, such as grade average, to be a superior basis for admissions decisions. This letter was one of the first results of efforts made since 1992 to create a coalition of education unions and individuals (researchers, lawmakers, etc.) to mutually support actions in defense of public education in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.


Some Progress Made

As a result of the protests and negotiations with the Ministry of Education and school officials, an agreement was signed with a team of parents, students, teachers and researchers. Changes of schools were allowed. More spaces were made available at some schools, thus giving students more choices. Also, three-year scholarships to private schools were granted to many students.


Although there had been talk of extending this type of testing throughout the country, the protests have made such proposals less frequent. Officials apparently are reconsidering whether to conduct the testing next year in Mexico City, or whether to make changes in the procedures. (Next year's testing would occur during election campaigns, and the ruling party recently suffered losses in local elections in Mexico state, which surrounds Mexico City). Meanwhile, teachers, parents and students are preparing themselves for another round of struggle should the testing occur again.