For a long time now most Slovaks have had a high opinion of their high school education system. But this view is being challenged by the introduction of a new type of secondary school leaving examination which has been getting poor reports from people who say this type of testing puts unnecessary pressure on the students. Others say the new exams will gradually win over the sceptics.
At the end of June students called the school year off and started a two-month holiday. It was a breakthrough year for secondary schools as the ministry implemented, as it says it biggest reform in the last 15 years, the long planned new type of school leaving examination, or in Slovak - Maturita.
"I evaluate this school year as the year of breaking down barriers, opening of schools to society. We really started in the direction of quality and competition. It is really a school year of the 3rd century."
... Education Minister Martin Fronc proudly evaluating this school year. As of this year, secondary school graduates have to pass two types of school leaving exams, the traditional oral and the new written national examination.
"It wasn't possible to compare a grade at one school with the same grade at another school. There were great differences among the performances among students."
... says Dana Pichanicova from the State Pedagogic Institute. The first results of the new "maturita" show that the number of students who have failed the exam has doubled in comparison to the previous year. As Monika Murova, spokesperson for the Education Ministry says it is not an alarming number since it mounts up to 5 percent of all the students undergoing the exam. According to her, the exam results should be taken as an eye opener:
"For many years in Slovakia we thought that we have one of the best school systems. This new exam really showed us and is a proof that we have a problem and we must solve it in the future."
The centrally evaluated tests eliminate double standards and advantaging students of whom teachers are fonder. Surprisingly the new written tests have shown great differences in knowledge in different regions and more importantly name problem areas.
"Our students have problems with languages; most of them failed English and German."
...which, as Murova explains, could easily be due to the fact that good language teachers willing to work in the education sector for the offered salary are very hard to find.
"This year we started with a new teachers' salary system. We only started to do this, because it means much more money from the state budget for teachers and the school system."
This year's maturita was accompanied by great discussions and faux pas on the side of the authorities. The mathematics exam had to be retaken, because some of the distributed tests were already filled in and on top of that graduates had to take an oral exam on 5 subjects and write the central exam on 3 subjects. Critics say that 5 days of constant nerves and testing is too much of unnecessary stress laid on students:
"In our family, the maturita really caused a lot of stress. My daughter first had the written, then the oral part. She will study human sciences and it caused just more stress for her, because although she had one more science subject to learn for the maturita, they didn't get more time than the previous graduates."
... says a mother of one of this year's graduates. But supporters of the new maturita say it has very clear and important goals - to make the maturita objective and fair, increase the chances of our students accepted abroad, and eventually have the maturita test result serve as a base for university acceptance. Monika Murova continues:
"This new system really reflects our school system and it also shows how our teachers teach, whether they are good or not. Now we have very good results thanks to which we can compare our secondary grammar school."
This, as Murova says, will give a better chance for parents to place their children in the most suitable and best school.
This year's school leaving examinations suffered harsh criticism for being too difficult and prepared in a hurry. Next year's graduates will probably have even worse results since other subjects will be added to the written form of testing.
It seems the reform is an inevitable step, as our neighbours also strive for a unified system of testing to enable comparisons among nations in the future and make it easier for students to travel and study in various countries.
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