The first modern secondary school was opened in San Jose in 1887. Those pursuing university educations before the end of World War II had, on the whole, achieved a secondary education. The secondary education program was restructured into two cycles by 1964. During the first three years, all students take course work in Spanish, social studies, mathematics, science, music, and religion. The next cycle is comprised of two or three years of study. Students can take two additional years of courses in the humanities or sciences, or they can take a three-year professional program in agriculture, industrial arts, or office skills.
Education through eleventh grade is mandatory, but only 47 percent of age-appropriate children attend. Currently, 220,151 secondary students attend 342 high schools. The percentage of students at the secondary level in 1970 was 23.7 percent, which increased to 40 percent by 1980, far above the average for Latin America.
The exams had been discontinued for 15 years, but Minister Francisco Pacheco reinstated them in 1988. The cost to administer the exams was a big part of the total educational budget. In 1991, 33.7 percent of students taking secondary school exams failed the math exams; 4.4 percent failed science; 5.9 percent failed Spanish; and 4.5 percent failed social studies. Since students must pass all parts of the exam, 48.3 percent of the students failed the exam and could not go to college. In remote regions like Guapiles and Liberia, 62.3 percent do not pass the exams and 56.4 percent do not graduate.
The cost of sending two children to attend colegion is about 1000 colones or US$5.00 a day, which is 25 percent of the average family income. There are more boys than girls in the upper grades. Education for girls is not considered necessary. Many girls take care of younger children in their families, especially in rural areas. Even if they do not drop out of school, girls have many household and childcare responsibilities that interfere with their studies.
Teachers rely on rote learning methods. Generally, teachers write on blackboards and students copy from the board or from a textbook. Textbooks are limited, so children generally work in groups, with one child reading from the text while others copy from it. Books are scarce, and school libraries are either non-existent or filled with very old books. Few extra materials are available and books are never taken home for study. Additionally, most schools do not have paper for children to use, and teachers must buy their own chalk and other teaching tools.
After nine years of basic education, students enter specialized education that lasts three years in the technical track and two years in the academic track. In 1988, provisions were passed that now require students to take an examination to obtain their diploma in secondary education, a prerequisite for university admission. The diploma is similar to a high school diploma in the United States. Admission tests are also required at some institutions like the University of Costa Rica and the Technological Institute of Costa Rica. There is no restriction on foreign student enrollment and many foreign students in Costa Rica come from Central American countries.
In 1990, approximately 97 percent of graduating secondary students planned to continue with higher education. The University of Costa Rica was their first choice. Finances were the number one problem for 58 percent of public students and 34 percent of private secondary students who planned to pursue higher education. For male graduates, their choices for higher education were 84 percent for public universities, 9 percent for private universities, and 7 percent for foreign universities. Female students' choices were 78 percent for public universities, 17 percent for private universities, and 5 percent for foreign universities. Graduates from private secondary schools earn the bachillerato and gain admission to universities at higher rates.
In 1968, a normal school of secondary-teacher training was opened due to a shortage of teachers that the University of Costa Rica program could not combat. Only 10 percent of students attend private schools; most private schooling is available at the secondary and higher education levels. At the highest quintile, 40 percent of students attend private institutions. The percentage of students who fail exams is higher at public schools than at private schools. By 1989, there were 4,089 primary and secondary schools; 49 semi-private, publicly supported private schools; and 316 private schools.
Students who attend vocational school during their last two secondary years of school have a reduced academic load and increased vocational instruction. In 1956, two previously private vocational schools became public schools. Commercial vocational schools have the highest student enrollments, followed by industrial, agricultural, and technical programs. The first school of agriculture was not opened until 1962. Many agricultural schools are located in rural areas and offer a five-year course of study. Students who complete the technical track in school obtain the tecnico medio (mid-level technician diploma), which allows them to practice particular trades.
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