One of the very different things in Hungary (compared to the American education system) is the system of school-leaving exams, sometimes called Matura exams, or érettségi vizsga.
Students take these exams at the end of their 12th (or 13th) year of academic studies. Students in vocational schools usually don’t take them; they have technical exams instead. Technical school students may or may not take them, or take them in combination with technical subjects. Students at grammar schools (academic schools which prepare students for college or university, like VKG where I teach) will most certainly take these exams. Their future rides on it, because the number of points – which is the basis for university admissions – comes mostly from these exams.
The érettségi is a series of exams. Everyone is required to take exams in Hungarian grammar and literature, Math, and History. In addition, they should choose two (or more, for the ambitious ones) other subjects, one of which should be a language. They can choose to take each exam at the standard level or advanced level, and they can choose to do certain exams in English instead of Hungarian. Of course all of these choices are based on which subjects are needed for future studies.
Each exam is made up of two parts, written and oral. The written tests are in the first week of May, and they are national – all senior students write the same exam at the same time on the same day. The oral exams happen later in May and June.
The way that the exams are created and given is very strange to me. And by strange, read “the most mind-bogglingly inept system within Hungarian education”. The written tests are created in secret (I imagine a top-secret lab in Budapest somewhere) and distributed in sealed boxes to the schools. But other than this, the rest of the exam is handled by high school teachers. The exams are proctored and corrected by teachers, using the given key. The materials for the oral exams are created by teachers, for themselves to use. And, while students doing the advanced level exams are assigned to another high school in the city, the oral exams at standard level take place in the students own school, with the teachers that taught them that subject for the last 4 or 2 years.
The chance for favoritism is, let’s say, high. Some years ago one of my students told me the following “joke” about the school-leaving exam: Three students go to take the oral exam in History. The first student is pretty stupid, so he uses a lot of protekció (not a flat-out bribe, but some sort of behind-the-scenes way of pulling strings) and at the exam the teacher asks him “So, when was the 2nd World War?” He answers: “Um…. 20th century sometime?” “Great!” says the teacher, “100%!” When the second student goes to do the exam, he uses a bit less protekció. The teacher asks him the date of the war, and he answers more precisely than the first student. “Okay,” says the teacher, “and how many people died?” “About 50 million, I think,” says the student. “Good enough,” says the teacher, “you pass.” When the third student goes to take the exam, he knows that he is the brightest in the class and can certainly pass the exam on his own merits. So he doesn’t use any protekció at all. His exam goes something like this: Teacher: “When was the 2nd World War?” Student: “From 1939 to 1945.” Teacher: “Yes. And how many people died?” Student: “Estimates vary, but at least 50 million.” Teacher: “Fine. By name?”
Now, I have great respect for the majority of my colleagues, and I’m sure that nothing like this is happening in our school (or maybe I’m just really naive). But favoritism will happen. After all, we’ve taught these students for years and we know them well, and we are only human. If I have two students in front of me, one of who has studied hard for the last four years and one who has goofed off, how can I treat them equally? I would never deliberately try to make the exam more difficult for anyone, but how can I not offer one or two prompting questions to a struggling student?
And the worst part is that certain colleagues, following the line of the Department of Education, refuse to admit that this favoritism is happening. In fact, if I would bring up the topic, I would be looked down on for not being able control my feelings better. “A good teacher”, they would say, “a good teacher and a good examiner is able to put away your feelings and be objective.” Well, I’m happy for them if they can hold themselves to such high standards. Maybe in time I can learn this skill too. But for now, I think it is just another example of how disconnected the Department of Education is from actual teaching: the system does not make allowances for the basic human instincts of teachers. Teachers can not be human.
Favoritism is only one of my problems with the school-leaving exam system. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it as the current érettségi season unfolds over the next few weeks and months.