Romania: Testing Times for Students

testing times for studentsBUCHAREST | Since last September, 14-year-old Andreea Balan has been diligently preparing for the six standardized exams – three per semester – that will largely determine her academic future. Her performance on the exams is the key factor in her acceptance to a good high school.

The exam on Romanian language and literature was scheduled for 5 May. However, only a few days before, Balan, along with more than 420,000 seventh and eighth graders, was informed that the teachers’ union had chosen to boycott the exam. Moreover, teachers pledged to strike on all the exam dates, effectively preventing their students from taking the tests.

Twelve- and 13-year-olds learning to use new laptop computers at a school in Bran, Romania, in March. Photo: Honorary Consulate of Romania, Boston

In justification, teachers pointed to a laundry list of complaints against the Education Ministry, including the ministry’s recent decision to reorganize the way teachers are hired, fire many teachers, and deny them the 50 percent pay increase they were promised by the previous government.

After intense negotiations between the unions and Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu, the damage was downsized from a general strike on exam dates to a 10-point pact meant to keep, more or less, the status quo. The exams were finally given after a delay. And teachers will retain the current hiring system for the rest of this year.

“Why are they playing with us like this?” Balan asked. “I know they have big problems to solve, but this is not at all fair to us. We are already stressed out about these exams. We shouldn’t have more things to worry about on top of this.”

Parents have also rallied behind their children. While they say they are sympathetic to teachers’ concerns and do not agree with the ministry’s policies, they consider the current situation unacceptable.

“I find it disgraceful that the government and the unions are using children as blackmail currency in their quarrels,” complained Mihaela Guna, the president of the National Federation of Parents’ Associations, who has threatened to sue the teachers’ union in response.

Controversial Exams

The boycott was only the latest skirmish over the controversial standardized exams. Introduced at the beginning of the last school year by the education minister in the previous government, they have been a source of continuous debate about their implementation and efficiency.

“This is the worst system we’ve had in a very long time,” complained Alina Herisanu, who teaches Romanian language at one of the top high schools in the town of Campulung Muscel. “It does not encourage creativity at all, because students know exactly what subjects they will be tested on.”

Herisanu says the overall quality of her classes has dropped since the new system was adopted. Under the system, a student is admitted to a high school based on the average of his or her middle school grades and marks on the standardized exams in the Romanian language, mathematics, and history or geography.

Although the tests are administered uniformly nationwide and are supposed to be objective, many complain that the results are misleading due to widespread cheating. Teachers often collude with students in handing out inflated grades in order to increase the reputation of their schools and improve their students’ chances to be accepted to good high schools.

“So we get quite a few students in elite ninth grades who noticeably cannot keep up with their classmates,” Herisanu said. “Unfortunately, at that point it’s too late to do anything other than slow down the pace.”

Four years later, students face the same system when they seek admittance to university, primarily on the basis of their marks on six baccalaureate exams. Grades on the exams are monumentally important, determining a student’s chances in the university admissions process and accounting for anywhere from 30 percent to 75 percent of the final admission score, depending on the university.

When she took office last December, Minister Andronescu publicly acknowledged that fraud was being perpetrated at this level too. She made it a priority of her mandate to change the current university entrance examination system by the fall of 2010, but did not offer any specifics at that point. It is expected, however, that standardized exams will be scrapped altogether, and that the baccalaureate will be reduced to only three tests.

Romanians still widely believe that the only way to eliminate cheating and encourage fair competition is to again allow each high school and university to administer its own entrance exams. This practice has been phased out since the late 1990s, but no other formula has proven successful.

For Balan and her eighth-grade peers, uncertainty over whether the high-school exams would be held at all and the effects on their educational future has overshadowed the past few months. For students one year younger, the situation is even more complicated. They find themselves asking how they will enter high school if the ministry goes back to the entrance-exam system and the standardized tests become obsolete one year from now. The same goes for all their other grades earned so far, which will most likely become irrelevant if entrance exams are reintroduced in the old format. Grades will still count toward their averages but will not play any role in their admission to the next level.

“It probably means that we’ve put in all this effort for nothing,” complained 13-year-old Viorel Toma from the northeastern city of Iasi. He says he and his classmates are now more confused than ever about what they are supposed to do.

“These children have absolutely no clue what they will be up against,” said Mariana Popescu, a mathematics teacher from Brasov in central Romania, who says that many perplexed families contact her for advice. “While most of us agree that the standardized tests are not a good solution for Romanian education, neither are decisions that disrupt the whole system from within. These changes should all be made well in advance, so that all of us know what to expect at the beginning of a school cycle, not in the middle of it,” Popescu said.

Ministry “Flip Flopping”

It is exactly such a track record of abrupt changes, both in form and content, that the Education Ministry has been known and criticized for over the last two decades. Andronescu is the fifth minister in four years, and she has already earned herself the nickname of “flip-flopper” after implementing major curriculum changes for technical high schools. Those included removing logic, psychology, and Romanian history and reducing the number of classes of physical education, computer science, and foreign languages.

Within a few days, however, Andronescu had gone back and for forth several times on her decisions, mostly in response to the public outcry. In an interview with TOL, she explained that she merely wanted to decongest students’ weekly schedules, and reduce the number of hours they spend in the classroom from more than 35 to just 30.

Simion Hancescu, vice-president of the Free Union Education Federation trade union, disagreed with that justification, dismissing the ministry’s moves as “a terrible hotchpotch.” Hancescu has been fighting Andronescu’s reforms from day one.

While there is broad agreement that Romanian students at all levels spend too many hours in school and have too much material to cover, all attempts to reform this area have been met with resistance by teachers, students, and even politicians. In an effort to regulate the system and prevent more erratic changes driven by ministers of different political affiliations, President Traian Basescu last year gathered all political forces together to sign a “Pact for Education” that committed the country to a qualitative boost in education and research by 2013. Basescu’s idea was to implement a long-term strategy that would prevent disruptive changes, but aside from official rhetoric, little has resulted so far.

Although currently under fire from unions and not very popular with the general public, Andronescu has vowed to step up reforms not only through adjusting the amount of time students spend in class, but also by refocusing the curriculum to develop students’ personal competencies.

Andronescu, for her part, seems unfazed by the criticism. “The task is phenomenally difficult, considering that everything has been so chaotic for the longest time,” the minister said. “We certainly have the competence to do a great job now and change the educational environment.”




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