New examination system fails students

All of us with children in senior high school or university have a clear memory of what society and education was like in our day, and the ways in which our teachers transmitted their knowledge. Many will recollect school as a place of harsh discipline, where the students – for reasons of hygiene – had their heads shaved and wore a cap that they would have to raise to teachers to show respect when our paths crossed. Not doing so would entail consequences. For girls, a blue pinafore was compulsory. Many will recall the severe teacher, ruler in hand, ready to thrash the inattentive or undisciplined student, even in the first classes of primary school. Education then focused on diligence and decorum. Students had to pay devout attention to whatever the teacher told them and repeat it without changing a word. For some, this was easy, but others resorted to learning by heart. Students were called upon to regurgitate knowledge, which was regarded as eternal, unchanging and universal. After 1974, Greek schools became more democratic, the blue pinafore and the cap were abolished and the pupil’s ability to learn was assessed along with his knowledge. At the same time, senior high maintained educational rigor, due to the entrance examinations for higher education institutes. Learning by rote was never eradicated. Passing marks Previously, the conditions for moving up a class or leaving school were the following: 1. An annual general mark of at least 10 in all lessons. 2. An average mark of over 10 and failure in not more than four secondary subjects. 3. An average overall mark of over 13 in the main subjects and under 10 in only one to four of them. 4. The student who failed one to four subjects and lacked an overall average of 10 or 13 would repeat exams in September. 5. Fail: Lower marks than the above would result in the student repeating the class. However, the education reform of 2000, one of whose aims was to abolish learning by rote, lowered standards. When the new system of general senior high schools was introduced, to move up from second to third grade, a student required: a) a general average of 10 in examination subjects; and b) an average grade of 9.5 in the two special subjects as well as in the core subjects of Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, history, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Failure to obtain these marks meant the student would have to repeat the class. If this had applied in 2002, 50 percent of students who had opted for science and technology in the second class of senior high would have failed, because they were unable to resit exams. But because successive changes in the law enabled students to resit exams in September, greater leeway was given to those in danger of failing, with the result that only 12.2 percent went on to resit exams in September. After the latest presidential decree (80/2003), school grades were no longer made to correspond with written exam marks. «For all of the classes of senior high, the yearly mark for pupil performance… is the average for the whole year, in conjunction with the corresponding mark obtained in the written exam…» That is, in 2002, a student who had obtained a mark of 20 for the whole year and only 10 in the written exam would have had the former grade shrunk to within two points of the latter, in this case, to 12. But now, the school grade stays at 20, whatever the student’s mark in the written exam. Thus, a student in the second class of senior high who obtains a school grade of 18 in all subjects, and only one in his written exams, would nevertheless pass the class, since 18 plus one, divided by two, equals 9.5. When the system was first implemented, a whole army of first-rate students appeared. In the second year (2001) and the third (2002), the subjects given were of «escalating difficulty.» Then the number of students with exam results below the passing grade increased. In 2002, 40 percent of higher education candidates gained grades ranging from 0 to 9.9. This forced the Ministry of Education to introduce the latest amendment, which enables students to move up a class or leave school even if all their exam grades are below the passing mark. Was this what educational reformers had in mind when they recommended the national school-leaving certificate as a guarantee of knowledge and a passport in life? After so many corrections and amendments, is the general senior high school on the way up? Unfortunately, the high school teachers’ trade union seems to be justified in saying in a press announcement dated July 24, 2002 that: «For one more year, the all-Greece examination for the second and third classes of general senior and technical high schools provided the opportunity for the magnitude of the failure of educational reform to be seen, as well as the dead ends that thousands of young people are trapped in at a crucial point in their careers…» In a previous article (Kathimerini, October 6, 2002), I had analyzed the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the general high school over the past three years. The findings were disappointing, both in relation to the distribution of candidates among the different branches of knowledge and with respect to their performance. Recently, the Education Ministry announced the first choices of candidates for 2002. This is yet another aspect which the general senior high school has not managed to solve. First choice, no choice? In 2002, 10,667 candidates had put as their first choice schools whose minimum entrance or base grades ranged from 18-20. But since only 1,910 places were available, only one in five candidates got into the school of their first choice. The 8,757 candidates that did not find a place then took up the same number of places in the 15-18 base grade bracket, at which schools 16,313 places were available. This left only 7,556 places for the 31,108 candidates who had made these schools their first choice – one in four of that group of candidates. The remaining 23,552 candidates took up places in schools that had base grades of 10 to 15. There, 31,224 places were available and the number of candidates that had made these schools their first choice numbered 36,005. But only 7,672 places were left to them. So, only in one in five candidates made it to their school of first choice in this bracket. The 28,333 candidates who did not get into their first choice of school ended up in schools that had set base grades of 3-10 and which had been the first choice of 8,662 candidates. However, only 18,717 places were available. This means that none of the candidates (except by statistical accident) in this category managed to get into their first choice of school. Consequently, only 20 percent of candidates in 2002 entered their school of first choice. This also happened during the previous system, when seven in 10 candidates did not enter school. But there is a fundamental difference: Before, first choices reflected a candidate’s aspirations; now, they are a matter of pragmatism. (1) Emmanouil Amaryianakis is a teacher and owner of the ORION-IdEF School.