The ICFES is the Colombian equivalent to the SAT, except that is covers eight subjects – math, physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, language arts (Spanish), social studies, and English (as a foreign language) – and is given in two parts, each four and a half hours in length. The other major difference between this standardized test and its US counterpart is that every Colombian high school graduate must take the exam to receive a diploma of graduation and, those wishing to attend university in the country depend heavily on the score they receive. So, you know, no pressure.
So, why did I put myself through it? I’d say it was equal parts wanting to test my own Spanish comprehension after living here for four years, wanting a first-hand point of view of what is expected (according to the Colombian Ministry of Education) of my biology students, and because it was cheap at about US$20. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating cultural experience as well.
The test is only given twice a year, with most people taking it at the close of their last year of school. When you register, you are asked to put your address with the hope that you will be given a testing site nearby. My colleague, Rita, and I both said we “lived” at the school in the hopes that we would be testing together and at one of the universities that sprout like weeds around our own school’s campus. No such luck; we were both placed at separate sites on the other side of the city.
Upon arriving at the Universidad Libre in the west side of Cali just after 6am on a drizzly Sunday morning, I joined the already growing number of students lining up down the street, leading away from the front doors of the fortressed university building. Because every graduate must take this test, there were people arriving from all kinds of schools, neighborhoods, socioeconomic backgrounds; some arrived my bus, some by taxi, and others drove themselves. It struck me that this may be one of the only times in most city-dwelling Colombian’s lives that they are forced to intermingle with others from vastly different backgrounds, in this still very caste-like divided society.
The doors opened at 7am and everyone filed into the building and were directed to the wing and floor we were each assigned to. Outside room 408 I was met by a nice old professor-like gentlemen in a worn sweater and jeans who asked to see my identification and match my name with the list outside the door. With his glasses on the tip of his nose, he triple-checked that I was indeed who I said I was, smiled, and told me to sit in desk #16.
As I entered the room, which at this point had only one other test-taker in it, I oriented myself to the numbering on the desks. I saw desk 11, and 12, and then 13. Taking a glance further down the row I saw it. One desk that was older, smaller, and more decrepit than the rest. Even though my gut told me I would be squeezing into this miniature joke of a writing surface, I still continued to count.
Once the room was filled, the gentleman proctor from the door, Mr. Rojas, began distributing the exams, each personalized with our names and codes, pre-sealed in their own plastic-wrapped packages. For the next four and a half hours Mr. Rojas, wandered in and out of the room, chatting with other proctors from across the halls, occasionally peaking his head into the room and sighing heavily as he plopped down in the one comfortable-looking chair at the head of the classroom.
|Oye, ¿Esta prueba de ingles es de 'fill in|
the blanks' o es de 'spot the mistake'?
One of the most controversial sections, English language, has received some of the worst criticism. I’ve heard horror stories about questions such as “Which of the following would you find in a park?” with the choices being between a man, a tree, a trashcan, and a dog. Unsurprisingly, very bilingual graduates from my school were scoring in the 80th percentile. At lunch we were all anxious to see how this year’s exam would play out.
Other than a couple oddly worded passages, I thought the entire section was well done, although the girl next to me would probably opine otherwise, as she clearly came from a school with no English program and therefore filled in none of her answer sheet, another universal flaw in the exam for schools with no English teachers or funding yet with national expectations.
The only question that I may actually have gotten wrong was in a section with a series of signs where the tester was asked to determine where these signs would be found. One sign said “No running.” The choices were: a zoo, a park, and on a bus. I chose “a zoo” because it doesn’t seem possible to really run on a bus, nor seem like that would be a problem. I’ve seen plenty of people running at a zoo, although I could see a sign condemning this behavior here much more than on a moving vehicle. Later in the evening, Rita confirmed this sentiment, however, at school this week, the students had a different point of view: the school busses list not running as one of the many rules. Context will get you every time.
|From the ICFES website, the girl on|
the left seems to be having an easier
time managing her exam than some
in my testing room.
Another strange thing about this exam is its form. Think about being lost on some rural country road or stuck in the middle of big city in rush hour traffic with some giant road atlas map spread out over your lap and steering wheel, momentarily blocking out the windshield. The exam “booklet” is like that. You must somehow manipulate this massively awkward poster-sized paper monstrosity with origami master skills in a desk with a foldable writing surface the size of a notebook. (Or, in my case, half that size.) Why they can't print separate pages and throw a couple staples in it while they're busy shrink-wrapping them is beyond me and most of the people I have spoken to.
Other than the philosophy and Spanish language arts sections, which I pretty much gave up on not for lack of literal translation but interpretive translation, I felt pretty good about the exam. For not studying at all, I felt pretty good about things I retained from my own university physics, math, and chemistry days. Multiple-choice also helps a great deal, and, as a teacher, writing tests gave me an edge in weeding out potential wrong answers.
Time will tell, however, if I could apply to a Colombian university. Truth be told, I’m mostly looking forward to seeing the score from the biology section, however, a part of me – the competitive part - would love to outscore at least one of our graduating seniors in the overall score. Going for the B-C-B-C-B-C strategy on two sections probably won’t let that come to fruition though.
We’ll all find out in May, I guess…