Poland: A Season of Change

a season of changePOZNAN, Poland | The blooming chestnut tree has long symbolized a rite of passage for Polish 19-year-olds –school-leaving exams held in late April and early May. And in what could be a bad omen for the country’s approximately 300,000 test-takers, the chestnuts have yet to flower due to this year’s cold spring.

But potential graduates may be too stressed out right now to notice the menacing harbinger: This year’s final exams – known in Polish under the collective name of matura – are unlike anything their predecessors experienced.

“Students have become the guinea pigs for the Education Ministry,” has become the new mantra heard from both students and their parents. The latter remember their own finals: rather relaxed and conducted under the supervision of their own teacher – all of whom were familiar with their students’ intellectual assets and shortcomings. Teachers would even turn a blind eye to cheating, a practice so ubiquitous that it became another school-leaving tradition – officially condemned, but hardly ever punished. The same teachers would mark the final papers, meaning in practice that a student’s reputation would often count as much as the actual paper he or she produced.

Never again, the Education Ministry has decided. The new matura is designed to be objective and to ensure that the familiarity of students and teachers is no longer a factor. Papers are encoded and a cheat will automatically be failed – and will have to wait a year to re-sit the exam.

Like the old exam, the new matura consists of two parts, oral and written. Until this year, oral exam consisted only of questions from which a student would make a random choice on the spot. Now, the oral presentation will be prepared on a subject chosen beforehand, followed by questions from the examiners. The written test, with its mixed formats (short and extended answers, and multiple choice), replaces the long essay required in the old matura.

Under the old system, students had to pass oral and written exams in Polish and one other subject, and could take an oral in another subject. Students must now pass Polish, a foreign language, and another subject of their choosing. The more ambitious can choose an extra two subjects. For the first time, the foreign language test – for which 77 percent of students this year chose English – will emphasize the ability to communicate in specific, real-life situations, rather than just assess a student’s knowledge of grammar.

Critical Thinking or Buying Knowledge?

The Education Ministry hopes the new exam will enhance young Poles’ ability to search out information, analyze it, and present it in clear and concise form – the same skills that international tests have repeatedly shown that Polish students lack.

“Will the new exam cause schools to stop littering young heads with useless theoretical knowledge and instead prepare for life in the modern world? If that happened, it would be a galactic change,” Magdalena Kula wrote on 18 April, the day the new exam kicked off, in Gazeta Wyborcza.

As with any thorough change, however, the new exam has been subject to heavy criticism and already new forms of cheating are emerging. Having the freedom to choose the subject of the oral presentation months before the actual exam immediately created a market for ready-made presentations. Complete presentations have appeared on the Internet for prices ranging from $30 to $165, and the number of offers available has multiplied exponentially.

The written test too is becoming a flashpoint because the test, which is identical across Poland, gives examiners little leeway. “Outstanding students may score the same result as average ones,” believes Jan Wrobel, a headmaster of a high school in Warsaw, the Polish capital. “That is because the marking scheme simply does not take into account outstanding answers,” Wrobel said on the Polish Radio on 17 April. Wrobel criticized the new exam for promoting stereotyped knowledge and thinking.

Some are also unhappy that the matura has been designed to combine two major exams – the school-leaving exam and the university entrance test. Many universities simply do not believe the Education Ministry could have come up with a reliable method of testing young people’s knowledge, so they have retained their own entrance tests for many of the most popular faculties, including sociology, law, and political science.

Einstein Would Struggle

Proponents argue that since the new exam is going to be identical across Poland, its results will give a good picture of the state of the Polish education six years after the government embarked on reform. In 1999, the then coalition government of Solidarity Electoral Action and Freedom Union introduced a new tier of secondary education, the gymnasium, for 14- to 16-year-olds (and not, in contrast to gymnasia elsewhere in Central Europe, for the brightest pupils). The next step was introduction of final exams at the end of primary school and the gymnasium. The matura is the last element of the reform – reform that left-wing critics say has failed the most vulnerable.

“The education reform has widened the gap between haves and have-nots,” the left-wing dailyTrybuna opined on 14 April. “It favors pupils and students from rich families, while leaving the poor on the margins. The former can afford good schools, extra courses, and private lessons. The latter attend small, disadvantaged schools and have fewer chances to prepare for the school-leaving exams that are now becoming the gateway to universities,” the daily charged.

So far, identical nationwide exams at primary schools and gymnasia have revealed a strong correlation between poor scores and living in rural or small-town Poland, where unemployment is endemic. The best scores came from the Warsaw and Krakow regions.

“Getting into university is going to become increasingly difficult for students from the poorer regions of Poland,” sociologist Jacek Kochanowski told Trybuna.

Since 1989, a university degree has proved the best protection against unemployment: According to the latest available data from Poland’s Main Statistical Office, only 7.7 percent of university graduates are unemployed, compared with 21 percent for those who completed secondary education and 27 percent with a primary or vocational education.

Universities have their own problems, too. “Even Albert Einstein would stand no chance in the current system,” Professor Andrzej Jajszczyk quipped bitterly in Gazeta Wyborcza on 1 April.

Jajszczyk said there are only two Polish universities – Warsaw and Krakow – on the world’s top 500 list and both rank lower than 400th. Jajszczyk blamed poor financing of the Polish universities but also a lack of generational change, which has meant that many younger people have been shut out of academic careers.

One positive signal has come recently from the outgoing left-wing government led by Marek Belka. The government wants to increase the budget for scientific research by 40 percent in 2006, to $1 billion. Once that happens, the top rung of the educational ladder can heave a sigh of relief. Experts, though, fear that the trend is to concentrate on higher education, leaving the rest of the education system lagging.

It seems the barren chestnut trees may not be the only bad omen for Poland’s newest graduating class.




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