Brazil’s National High School Exam (Enem) was created in 1998 as a way to test the quality of high school education. It has since been turned into Brazil’s main college acceptance exam, and is used by most of the country’s federal universities.
Unsurprisingly, Enem scores reflect deep divisions of class, race, and gender within Brazilian society. Over 70 percent of the exam’s best scores belong to males whose parents have at least a college education. Of course, while it may not be news that a student’s social and economic background plays a large role in educational performance, it would be worthwhile to take a look at just how pervasive inequality is within our school system, and how these imbalances translate into very real and problematic material circumstances.
In this article, I will examine the relationship between the physical conditions of school facilities and the performance of high school students who took the Enem. To give you an idea as to the structural problems we’ll be looking at, consider a few facts: roughly 50 percent of Brazilian schools don’t have access to a sewage system; 5 percent don’t have electricity; 25 percent don’t even have trash pickup.
Students from schools with trash pickup score, on average, 39 more points on the Enem than those from schools without one (Enem scores range from 0 to nearly 1,000). Having access to a sewage system statistically adds 30 extra points to a student’s score. Add a science lab, and that becomes 61.
Another way of measuring student performance is to calculate the percentage that surpassed 600 points. In general, this is the lowest score needed to have a chance at gaining entry to a public university. In the following chart, you’ll see the impact of having multimedia equipment. For schools with a high quantity of such equipment, the percentage of students who scored well is five times larger.
To quantify a school’s infrastructure, I used Brazil’s 2016 School Census, which was conducted by the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research (Inep). I then crossed that data with scores from the 2016 Enem. After excluding schools with too few students, I’ve compiled results using 22,982 facilities.
The School Structure Index (SSI)
This index intends to quantify the quality of a school in terms of infrastructure. Three aspects are considered:
1. Educational infrastructure
- Teachers’ qualifications
- Number of students per class
- Number of employees per student
- Number of sports courts
2. Basic infrastructure
- Filtered water
- Sewage system
- Waste collection
3. Technological infrastructure
- Computers per student
- Multimedia equipment per student
- Access to internet
- Sciences lab
- Computer lab
Each aspect is divided into 5 sub-items – and each of those is rated from 0 to 1, thus making 15 the maximum score possible for a school.
A profile of Brazilian high schools
Among the top 100 schools, 80 are private, 14 are federal, four are state, and two are municipal establishments. 99 of them are in cities, and only one is rural. 53 are in the southeast, Brazil’s wealthiest region; 35 are in the south; six are in the northeast; and six are found in the north. None of the top 100 schools are located in the Center-West region.
Out of the worst 100 schools, 99 are state and one is private. 55 are urban schools, 45 are in a rural district. 59 are in the northeast, Brazil’s poorest region; 31 are in the north; six are Center-West; four are in the South; and none are in the southeast.
While state schools are the worst establishments in Brazil, those that are federally owned feature among the top, outperforming even private institutions.
If you study in a northeastern school, the chances of being in an establishment without access to a sewage system reach 56 percent. Only 20 percent have the necessary infrastructure for sports activities.
Students from Maranhão – Brazil’s poorest state – have exactly a 0.18-percent chance of scoring over 600 points on the Enem. Only 1 out of every 555 students from this state made the mark. In comparison, a private school student in São Paulo has a 38 percent chance of being among the top scorers. Those odds are 211 times better than students from Maranhão.
Which indicators are more important?
I calculated the gap between the best and worst schools. The widest gaps relate to four main indicators: number of employees per students (72 point gap); multimedia equipment per student (69 point gap); students per class (68 point gap); and computers per student (46 point gap).
A few notable exceptions
Some students are able to overcome the lack of infrastructure in their schools to outperform the average. I’d like to highlight three of them here, keeping in mind that the government’s database of Enem results is anonymous:
- 16-year-old student boy, from Mauriti, Ceará
Despite attending a school with an average SSI of 7 (remember, the maximum is 15), this student scored 738.10 points, while his classmates scored an average of 430.77. In his school, EEFM Adauto Leite, there is no library, sciences lab or sports court. Each class has an average of 76 students.
- 16-year-old student boy, from Ipumirim, Santa Catarina
Studying at EE Benjamim Carvalho de Oliveira, this student got 772.94 points, against an average of 493.43 points from his classmates. This school does not have access to a sewage system.
- 17-year-old girl, Santa Inês, Maranhão
Coming from the country’s poorest state, this girl scored 684.88 points. At school, she didn’t have access to a sewage system, multimedia resources, or a sciences lab – and even had to deal with a leaking roof during classes.
These three teens are true Brazilian heroes!