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EXPLAINED: How Spain is overhauling its university entrance exams

The Spanish government has announced major changes to Spain’s university entrance exams, including fewer tests, no stand-alone foreign language test and more focus on ‘academic maturity’.

EXPLAINED: How Spain is overhauling its university entrance exams
Among foreigners in Spain, a perceived weakness of the current selectividad - and the Spanish education system more broadly - is that the style of teaching and learning is anchored by a very memory-based, rote-learning approach.  (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP)

Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE-fronted coalition government is set to overhaul the Spanish selectividad  process (also known as EBAU) for entry into university, something akin to a UCAS application in the U.K, or SAT tests in the U.S.

The changes halve the number of mandatory exams students need to take, and instead focus the thrust of the application around an ‘academic maturity test’ designed to encourage critical thinking, changes that have been derided by some newspapers, unions and associations in Spain as a ‘dumbing down’ of the process and major modifications that have been rushed out.

From the 2026/2027 academic year, the ‘academic maturity test’ will count for 75 percent of the final exams, and replace the traditional exams on the history of Spain and history of philosophy, with the remaining 25 percent taken from subjects chosen by the students. 

In terms of the overall grades and university application itself, 40 percent will be determined by the new exam format, and the other 60 percent by the student’s overall Baccalaureate file – equivalent to A-levels in the U.K and the GPA (grade point average) in the U.S.

The maximum score that can be reached will be 10.

With the new system students will take between two and four exams, with the minimum being just two: the maturity test, a test chosen from the pool of core subjects (including Maths, Sciences, and Arts) plus two elective tests, which are voluntary and students can choose the subjects.

The proposed changes, set to be presented to Spain’s autonomous communities and universities this week by the Ministry of Education, outline a lengthy transitional period for students, teachers, and university faculties to adapt to the new way of learning, teaching, and, crucially, test taking.

The implementation of the new selectividad will be gradual and enter into force by the 2026/2027 academic year. The transitional model will be in force in the 2023/2024, 2024/2025 and 2025/2026 academic years.

The reforms represent the largest reform of the university access system since it was created almost 50 years ago, and follows recent changes to Spain’s ‘ESO’ system.

READ ALSO: How Spain is changing its ESO secondary education system

One long held criticism of Spain’s university entrance system has been the number of exams, up to a maximum of nine. (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP)

Academic maturity test

The new ‘academic maturity test’ – which can be understood as encompassing critical thinking, reasoning and good judgement – will be made up of several sources including texts, images, infographics, and audiovisuals. Each student or applicant will do the same test, which may be topical, scientific, linguistic, or humanities-based, and the test will be divided into three parts.

The first part will be intended for “reading and analysis” of the documents and will last just 15 minutes. The second part will include a series of “closed or semi-constructed” questions that will be aimed at testing the “capacity for critical thinking, reflection and maturity” of the students. 

Two or three of these questions will be asked in a foreign language, most probably English, and this question and answer section will last for around 40 minutes.

However, according to Ministry of Education documents circulating in the Spanish press this week, the changes mean there will be no stand-alone foreign language exam. 

READ ALSO: What are the rules and costs for foreigners who want to go to university in Spain?

The third and final part of the test will consist of three open-ended questions (of which one will be in a foreign language) about the sources, and is designed to encourage critical thinking with “a single unequivocal correct answer”. It will last 45 minutes.

In recent decades, several Spanish governments promised reform on the university entrance process, but no substantial changes ever materialised.

One long held criticism of the system has been the number of exams, up to a maximum of nine.

Among foreigners, another perceived weakness of the selectividad – and the Spanish education system more broadly – is that the style of teaching and learning is anchored by a very memory-based, rote-learning approach. 

The ‘academic maturity’ test, therefore, is intended to encourage teachers and students to place greater emphasis on critical thinking as opposed to memorising topics or texts purely for the purpose of passing exams. 

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Spain and the US to exchange more language assistants in bilingualism push    

The governments of Spain and the United States have agreed to recruit more English and Spanish-language assistants from each other’s countries as a means of bolstering bilingual education in the two nations.

Spain and the US to exchange more language assistants in bilingualism push    

Spain’s Education Minister Pilar Alegría and US ambassador to Spain Julissa Reynoso met on Wednesday to sign a memorandum of understanding which will reinforce educational cooperation between the two countries. 

The agreement had been previously signed by Miguel Cardona, the United States Secretary of Education, who tweeted: “This week, alongside [Spanish] Ambassador [Santiago] Cabañas, I signed a memorandum supporting the study of Spanish language & culture in the US, and the study of English in Spain”.

It is in fact a renewal of a memorandum between the United States and Spain which has facilitated mobility of both conversation assistants and students between the two countries in recent years.

The aim of this newest memorandum of understanding is to further strengthen student and teacher exchange programmes and promote bilingual and multicultural teaching in both educational systems.

No exact details have yet been given about how many extra language assistants will be given grants to join the programme. 

Several teacher recruitment sources suggest the current number of North American language assistants (including Canadians) heading to Spain every year is between 2,000 and 2,500. 

The Spanish government has stated that in 2023, this figure will be around 4,500, which represents a considerable increase in the number of US and Canadian citizens who can apply through the NALCAP programme, which stands for North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain. 

According to Spain’s Foreign Ministry, the following requirements must be met by US candidates in order to participate in the programme:

  • Be a U.S. citizen and have a valid passport
  • Have earned a bachelor’s degree or be currently enrolled as a sophomore, junior or a senior in a bachelor’s programme. Applicants may also have an associate degree or be a community college student in their last semester.
  • Have a native-like level of English
  • Be in good physical and mental health
  • Have a clean background check
  • Be aged 18 – 60.
  • Have at least basic knowledge of Spanish (recommended)

NALCAP recipients receive a monthly stipend of €700 to €1,000 as well as Spanish medical insurance.

Application dates for 2023 are usually announced in late November. See more information on the NALPAC programme for US nationals here

According to The Fulbright Program, one of several US cultural exchange programmes that organises the recruitment of US nationals for Spain: “English Teaching Assistants assist teaching staff at the early childhood, elementary, middle school, high school, vocational and/or university level for up to 16 hours per week, with an additional two hours for planning & coordination meetings. Responsibilities include assistant-teaching, in English, subjects such as social studies, science and technology, art, physical education, and English language.”

READ MORE: The pros and cons of being an English language assistant in Spain

There are also currently more than 1,000 Spanish teachers working as visiting teachers in the United States, Spain’s Moncloa government has said, without adding yet how many more will be recruited in 2023.

Additionally, more than 1,000 North American students now take part in the Spanish Language and Culture Groups managed by the Spanish Education Ministry’s Overseas Education Action (or Acción Educativa Exterior, AEE).  

Canadian applicants can find out more about working as language assistants in Spain by visiting the NALCAP Canada website.