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The Warsaw Voice » Other » July 9, 2008
Education & Society
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Testing Time
July 9, 2008 By W.¯.    
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In May more than 440,000 high-school students in Poland took their graduation exams, collectively known as the matura. This "exam of maturity" marks a transition from youth to adulthood and determines the future careers and prospects of many students.

This year written exams started May 5 and ended May 21. Oral exams continued until May 31.

Matura exams are held in the students' own schools and are graded by teachers who work there. Students learn all their exam scores at the end of June. Before that date, the young people can file applications to enroll at a university-level school of their choice.

The obligatory written matura exams are in Polish, a foreign language and a subject (or subjects-up to three are allowed) of the student's choice. All students also have to take two obligatory oral exams: in Polish and a foreign language. This year, as in previous years, most students chose English as their foreign language. Almost 360,000 students, or more than three-quarters of the total number, took a written exam in English May 6. German was the second most popular foreign language, picked by 73,900 students, followed by Russian, with 29,500 students. French, Spanish and Italian were less popular.

Students from schools for ethnic minorities had additional mandatory written and oral exams in their own language: 291 students took an exam in Belarusian, 109 in Ukrainian, and 37 in Lithuanian.

The first obligatory exam was Polish. The basic-level exam lasted two hours and 50 minutes, and the advanced-level exam lasted three hours. The exam, testing students' knowledge of their mother tongue, was split into several parts; one of them-for the first time this year-was a comprehension test involving excerpts from the blog of a Polish journalist. Among their tasks, students had to analyze excerpts from two poems and one novel, all Polish literary classics.

Many critics
Ever since the Polish tests were introduced three years ago in their current form, they have aroused controversy. It was no different this time. One newspaper asked well-known writer Antoni Libera and philosophy professor Marcin Król to take the test. Libera passed with a poor mark that would have given him practically no chance of getting into a good university for Polish studies. Król failed the exam altogether. "The system according to which the matura is graded kills any independent thinking. This way of marking the exam has outraged the academic community. We all agree it's absurd," Król said after the experiment.

The standardized method of marking over the past two years has in practice encouraged high-school students to try to second-guess the intentions of the people who set the matura tests and the people grading them, instead of broadening their knowledge, many critics say. Academics say this kind of system produces mediocre students.

"I feel guilty; this is not how it was meant to be," says Irena Dzierzgowska, the former deputy education minister who helped reform the Polish school system three years ago. Dzierzgowska has signed an open letter in which eminent Polish scholars ask education minister Katarzyna Hall to change the way in which matura exams in Poland are graded as soon as possible. They say the current system has "a harmful impact on the intellectual development of young people."

Optional subjects
On May 7, a total of 143,500 students, or 32 percent, took their written exam in civics. Next to geography, this has long been the most popular optional matura subject, the number of students taking the exam growing every year. They can take the exam at one of two levels, basic and advanced; this year 63 percent chose the basic level. They had to answer 27 questions. Some were multiple-choice, while others were open questions in which the students had to write an answer; many of the questions referred to the constitution. For example, one question involved reading a text and then indicating four qualities of a good constitution; in another one, students had to specify five problems that would have to be resolved before the constitution could be amended. The students also had to simulate writing a letter to a newspaper explaining the role of the constitution in the state and in society, and pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of Poland's constitution.

Those taking the exam at an advanced level also had to write a short essay, with two topics to choose from. The first option was to describe the workings of a civil society, taking into account the positive and negative aspects of its functioning, and to list and elaborate on factors that hamper the emergence of a civil society in Poland. The second option was to describe various forms of civil disobedience and assess when it is justified.

IB program
Early May also marked the start of the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. Students from 700 schools all over the world took them this year. In Poland the IB program is pursued by more than 20 high schools, most of them not run by the state. Students with the best IB scores are admitted by the world's leading universities without any additional exams. The IB exam session lasts three weeks. During this time, students take over a dozen exams in six subjects. The obligatory ones are the student's native language, a foreign language and mathematics. Apart from that they have to take an exam in one of the social sciences (geography, history or philosophy), science (biology, chemistry or physics), and a subject the student selects from all those taught in their school.

The IB program is carried out in the last two years of high school. All classes are taught in English. Each school is free to choose its own method of admitting students to IB classes. The exam tests are prepared in Britain and sent from there to all the schools involved.

Students take all these exams in English. Each paper is marked on a scale of 1 to 7. With six parts to the exam, the maximum number of points is 42. An additional three points can be gained for an essay on the theory of knowledge and a research paper on a chosen subject-both written in English. In addition, all the students have to put in 150 hours of work for the community or the natural environment. After the exam the papers are coded and sent by courier to examiners in different countries around the world. The exam results are published on the IB Organization website in July. Certificates are distributed in early September.

The IB program has been available in Poland since 1993. An IB certificate is equivalent to a Polish matura certificate and entitles the holder to apply for courses at Polish universities, just like in the case of students with a Polish matura.

Reform in store
In the coming years, the matura exam system will undergo yet another reform. During a recent meeting with school principals, Hall mentioned a plan to restore an obligatory exam in math beginning 2010. "The lack of an obligatory math exam has led to a shortage of candidates for university-level technical and science courses in Poland," Hall said.

The education ministry plans other changes as well. Under one proposal, every student would have to take an exam at an advanced level in at least one subject.

Another reason for the criticism leveled at the current matura system is that a growing number of students resort to plagiarism and buy presentations of a topic for their oral exam in Polish from someone else. The change of the oral exam system, based on replacing the previous set of randomly drawn questions with a student's own presentation, was supposed to promote creativity and independence. Instead it has created a black market, with the internet full of ads in which university students offer to "write a top-notch matura presentation quickly and cheaply." Such presentations are purchased not only by mediocre students but also by those who want to make sure they get the maximum number of points. Some experts say about one-third of matura presentations are bought from someone else rather than prepared by the students themselves.

Another controversy surrounds health issues. Some health centers say that they record a growing number of young patients with symptoms such as overexcitement, convulsions, anxiety and palpitations at the time of matura exams. Doctors say this is the result of putting faith in "miracle" cures that supposedly help a person absorb maximum knowledge in a short time. Their list, apart from popular energy drinks and coffee, also includes widely available medications containing ephedrine as well as drugs like amphetamine. Specialists have for years been warning against the effects of using these kinds of "learning aids," but the number of young people seeking medical help is growing every year.
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