Education in Colombia: Assessing Partial High School Credits

In this issue of World Education News & Reviews we present an overview of the Colombian secondary education system. The research for this project was originally conducted through the WES Canada [1] office of World Education Services [3] (WES) as part of its mandate to support the integration of adult immigrants arriving in Canada with partial high school credits. The project looked at ways of making it easier for school administrators to determine the credits these newcomers should receive toward a high school diploma.

WES worked collaboratively with the Kitchener-Waterloo Newcomer First Language Pilot Project to explore ways of supporting the implementation of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition for Mature Students (PPM 132 [4]) with adult immigrants from Colombia. The government of Ontario provided funding for the pilot project.

To begin the process of establishing high school credit equivalencies between Ontario and Colombia, WES researchers looked at Colombia equivalent credits in Spanish, mathematics and sciences, and compared them to Ontario secondary school courses for grades 11 and 12 in international languages, sciences and mathematics.

This proved tremendously challenging in the Colombian context, as the education system in Colombia has undergone a number of recent reforms and is highly decentralized. Therefore, the national curriculum, set by the Ministry of Education [5], is general in nature and typically used as a guideline for states and municipalities that have the authority to make curriculum decisions within their individual jurisdictions. By way of example, Colombian curriculum guidelines are set by the Ministry of Education for individual subjects, not for individual courses, as is the case in Ontario. Therefore there may be major differences in the teaching and testing at a course level at any given school.

The most effective tool that can be used to evaluate the Colombian curriculum at the Bachillerato level (upper secondary) is the ICFES exam (commonly known as Examen de Estado – Statewide Exam) that leads to university matriculation. All students take the exam after finishing upper secondary school. However, as the scores attained on this exam do not reflect the requirements for attaining the Bachiller (high school diploma), it does not tell us a great deal about high school curriculum standards, just the content.

Additionally, because the curriculum guidelines set out by the Colombian Ministry of Education are for upper secondary level – grades 10 and 11 (equivalent to 11 and 12 in Ontario) – one can only make conclusions about credit allocation for students who have completed their entire upper-secondary studies in Colombia; a problem if one is trying to evaluate partial high school credits.

While this was a pilot project, the process and findings have proven that in an increasingly globalized world, understanding different education systems and learning outcomes is critical to successful academic and labor mobility. Further PLAR research is needed in order to find effective ways to support curriculum equivalency comparisons within the Ontario policy on PLAR for Mature Students.

What follows is an overview of the Colombian school system, with links to equivalency information in a select group of subject areas.

Overview of the Colombian School System

The Ministerio de Educación Nacional [5] (Ministry of National Education) is the major administrative body that directs education in Colombia. The ministry exercises control over public and private schools (except for those private schools involved in training religious personnel). All 23 states in Colombia have a Secretario de Educacion (Secretary of Education) responsible for administering education in their jurisdictions in accordance with ministry standards.

The Ministry of National Education sets out Lineamentos o Estandares Curriculares (Curriculum Guidelines or Standards) that outline learning objectives and indicators for each grade level and subject. There are considerable differences in curriculum from school to school as individual schools may establish curriculum in accordance with community or regional needs.

The Colombian school system has three calendars (A, B and C) that determine which times in the year students will be in school. Calendar A begins February 1st and ends June 15 th, while calendar B begins September 1 st and ends December 15th. Primary and secondary schools are in session five days a week (Monday through Friday), 198 days a year. There are a total of twelve years of education preceding post-secondary education (nine of which are compulsory):

Both educación media académica and educación media técnica programs lead to the title of Bachiller (diploma also called Bachiller). If a specific specialization has been completed, this may also be mentioned on the diploma. In order to qualify for higher education, students must attain specific scores on the ICFES (commonly known as Examen de Estado – Statewide Exam) that has been developed and administered by the Instituto Colombiano para el Fomento de la Educacion Superior [6](ICFES). All students take the exam, and the results provide information that the Ministry of Education uses to monitor the quality and effectiveness of the school system.

Advanced Secondary Cycle (Grades 10 and 11)

The curriculum guidelines outline a 35-hour school week at the Bachillerato level (advanced secondary cycle). The grading system is as follows:

Excelente (Excellent) A
Sobresaliente (Outstanding) B
Aceptable (Acceptable) C
Insuficiente (Insufficient) F
Deficiente (Deficient) F

Note: there is no D grade – as the idea of passing with insufficient or unsatisfactory scores does not exist.

Depending on the area of specialization, students will take a different number of courses in a given subject. Therefore, students may graduate from the same high school having passed very different curriculum requirements.

ICFES “Examen de Estado (Statewide Exam)

The Examen de Estado is developed and administered by the Instituto Colombiano para el Fomento de la Educacion Superior (ICFES) and used for university matriculation. All students must take the exam, but the results will only be useful to the student if they go on to post-secondary education. Students must pass the exam in order to be accepted to an institution of higher education and a student make take the exam again and pay a small fee for retaking it. The results of the exam do not determine graduation from Bachillerato (upper secondary school). Most institutions of higher learning have particular scores that they require for entrance to different programs. Some institutions of higher education have their own entrance examinations as well.

The Examen de Estado (ICFES exam) is developed using the curriculum guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education and is split into two sections:

The ICFES exam is comprised of two full days of intensive testing from 8-5pm. The results of the tests are published by ICFES on its website (http://www.icfes.gov.co), and the Ministry of Education uses it to monitor the quality and effectiveness of the school system. When entire schools score exceptionally high or low on the exam, the Ministry will look into the schools to determine some of the causes and, in the case of poor exam performance, will take remedial measures. If a school consistently does poorly on the ICFES exam, they may be shut down.

The ICFES exam is therefore a good measure for testing how students and schools measure up to overall curriculum guidelines.

Grading of ICFES/ Examen de Estado:

On the ICFES website, further distinctions are made between SUPERIOR (Superior) and MUY SUPERIOR (Exceptional).

Curriculum Comparisons

For a detailed comparison of Colombian curriculum guidelines with Ontario curriculum standards in the four pilot subjects, please see Appendix 1 [7].

Helpful Links

ICFES searchable database (Spanish):
http://w3.icfes.gov.co:8080/refcol/icfes_mun.asp [8]
  • Provides a tool that can be used to look up specific ICFES exam scores at institutions or by state and municipality. Can give school administrators a better sense of the quality of education of a particular institution a student may be entering from.
  • Put in departmento (department) and municipio (municipality) and the year of ICFES exam and it gives you all the institutions.
  • Also searchable by institution name: click on avanzada (advanced search) on the right and type in the institution name
Searchable Colombian High School database (Spanish):
http://www.colegioscolombia.com/ [9]
  •  A search tool for all Colombian high schools (many of which have websites and ICFES scores)
  • Go to Busqueda de Colegios o Jardines Infantiles and search by institution
  • Can also use this search with ICFES scores
Examples of ICFES Exams (Spanish):
http://www.icfes.gov.co/cont/eebm/ac/e_e2000/ac20041/ac_20041/ee20041.htm [10]
  •  Provides examples of the ICFES test and the types of questions students are assessed on.
Ministerio de Educacion Website (Spanish):
http://www.mineducacion.gov.co/1621/channel.html [5]
  •  Government website provides statistics, curriculum guides, news and information on the legal system governing education in Colombia
Organizacion de Estados Iberoamericanos (Spanish):
http://www.oei.es/quipu/colombia/ [11]
  •  Provides detailed (up to date) educational information, statistics and the political and legal setup governing the Colombian educational system.
  • Many resources for further information (Spanish)
  • Detailed information on post-secondary education system
WES Educational Links:
http://www.wes.org/ewenr/researchAmerica.asp?country=3 [12]
  • Provides further links on Colombia education (educational, governmental, professional and overall information)
WES Country Profiles (must sign up FREE for access to profiles):
http://www.wes.org/ca/wedb/ecountrylist.htm [13]


Specific to Colombia: http://www.wes.org/ca/wedb/colombia/cofacts.htm [14]

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO):

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD):
http://www.oecd.org/infobycountry/0,2981,en_2649_201185_1_70345_1_1_1,00.html [15]

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS):
http://nces.ed.gov/timss/countries.asp [16]