Turnout for Brazil's standardized university admission exam on Sunday appeared to be the lowest in 15 years, in large part reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation's education, according to experts.
Just over 3 million students signed up to take the annual exam, down 44% from last year's registration and the lowest since 2006. The grueling 5 1/2-hour test, held over two weekends, is the main admission standard for Brazilian universities.
Experts said they expected many of those who registered early this year to be absent Sunday. About half of the 5.7 million who signed up for last year's tests also failed to show up when they were finally held amid the pandemic.
Extensive school closures and frustration with online teaching affected millions of students across the country.
"It is possible that, due to the interruption of the in-person learning, there is the feeling that there was not enough time to prepare for the exams," said Claudia Costin, director of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Education Policies, a research group in Rio de Janeiro.
She also noted that the pandemic caused economic hardships that pushed many to work rather than study.
Low attendance was evident at some points in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Crowds of parents usually cluster outside as their children take tests. But only a few street vendors selling pens and face masks were on hand a few moments before the start of the exam at Catholic University.
Conservative President Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has made the exam itself part of his culture war battle against the left. He has accused test designers of inserting a left-wing bias. And he's questioned how useful it is for judging university candidates — a stance often associated with left-leaning critics of tests in the United States.
"Look at the pattern of ENEM," he said this week during a visit to Qatar using the acronym for the National High School Exam. "For God's sake, does that measure any knowledge? Or is it political activism and behavioral issues?"
Critics say Bolsonaro's administration has intervened to adjust test questions it did not like — in one case recasting a reference to the 1964 military coup to call it a "revolution," as its backers did.
The Education Ministry did not respond to The Associated Press' request for comment on the low enrollment numbers or on the accusations of interference.
Thirty-seven members of the agency that prepares the exam — the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research — resigned this week, complaining of government attempts to interfere in the tests by inserting ideology.
The main union representing institute workers called Friday for an investigation of alleged attempts at censorship.
"Since Bolsonaro was elected, INEP officials have been treated as communists, motivated by political motives. And the institute's management does not want to respect technical opinions when preparing exams," the union's president, Alexandre Retamal, told The Associated Press.
Costin, a former education secretary in Rio de Janeiro, warned that the growing mistrust of the exam could lead even more to avoid taking it in coming years.
She told the AP that officials have a conspiratorial vision "that leads the government to believe that universities are political centers, and not places of research and knowledge production."