This year’s high school admission exams have resulted in the usual controversy about the viability and fairness of the system, just as they did in previous years. Despite the ongoing criticism, the Education Office responsible for the exams seems uanble to reflect on the problems caused by the antiquated system.
On January 20th, many of the 72,000 eighth graders involved were leaving the exam rooms with long faces after the majority of them found the mathematics exam thoroughly overwhelming. Many complained that the 45 minutes allocated for solving the ten questions were woefully inadequate, and some thought that certain test questions were worthy of a mathematics competition. While tasks from Hungarian language were deemed fair, the mathematics test keeps causing controversy year after year. The national average in math is usually at around 22-23 points out of 50 for eighth graders, which is below 50% achievement. Yet in most cases, even such an average score is only attainable through an ever-growing investment in private tutors and extra curricular education, even though exams should only be geared towards measuring knowledge attainable in standard elementary school education.
“We practiced a lot for the eighth grade entrance exam with my son. We have been preparing for this very day for almost a year now, we put him in a special preparation group, he often traveled across town after school, tired and exhausted, to get professional and effective help, we enrolled him in summer preparation camps,” said a mother from Budapest.
Nevertheless, he came home frustrated and stressed. Despite a lot of practice … he experienced the whole thing as a failure,”
she concluded, with regard to her son’s experience.
Social media sites exploded on the evening after the exams, many parents commenting that “maths was horrible, but at least it was horrible for everyone at the same time.” One of them thought that “the maths entrance was a real evil prank…” Even a Budapest mathematics teacher chimed in by saying that “our worst idea is better than this admission exam.”
The education portal koloknekt.hu had asked a secondary school teacher of mathematics and physics to give his opinion on this year’s admission. In the teacher’s view, “the current maths admission is not about testing knowledge, but rather about testing stress tolerance and speed of problem solving. Teachers often find that when marking admission papers, stress causes children to fail tasks that they would otherwise shake off.”
Unfortunately, the entrance exam is not doing its job. It is not true that the current maths entrance exam measures knowledge,
stressed the teacher.
As it stands, the Hungarian admission exam system is geared towards the top five percent of pupils who are destined to be picked by the most reputable high schools in the country, while a large proportion of pupils often remain in a legal limbo. Notwithstanding that the much anticipated experience is often unduly frustrating and demoralizing for children who have put a lot of effort into succeeding, those not reaching a certain average set by the high school of their choice end up in a strange system where they sometimes need to wait until September to learn their fate, and petition other high schools in their area to find a place for them.
The system that leaves thousands of children in legal uncertainty until the day of the start of the school year, can unsurprisingly be open to abuse, but the demoralizing effect it has on children is also a major concern. There is no official data, but a large number of pupils take after-school classes to prepare for the admission exams or otherwise. Parents can spend well over a 100,000 HUF (EUR 260) a month on a single child in teachers’ fees, a sum that many Hungarians can ill afford. However, elementary schools are often well behind their annual curriculum by the time admission exams are due, hence parents are left little choice in case they want their children to succeed. Little wonder that some studies have shown a correlation between the social status of Hungarian parents and the admission rate of their children in top schools.
Eventually, the majority of children attain a place in high-school, or gymnasium, as they are known in Hungary, yet the prevailing elitist approach that is to a large part also detached from real elementary school education is becoming ever more untenable. There is a role to play for both teachers and the government in turning an outdated system into one that measures children’s real knowledge and preparedness, rather than one geared towards identifying a narrow group with the ability to perform at speed and under high stress. Furthermore,
children’s success cannot depend on being from more affluent families who can afford to pay hundreds of thousands of forints for private tutors either.
Finally, even children who have not achieved scores sufficient for being invited to the next round consisting of verbal exams, must not be left behind by the education system. They should be able to receive alternatives based on merit, their real abilities, rather than put through a stressful and humiliating system of fishing for free places towards the end of the summer, facing often arbitrary criteria. There is no single element in the flawed admission test saga that could bring about the desired change towards a fairer system, and there is no single stakeholder who is to blame either. A thorough reform is needed from the bottom up with the active participation of teachers that has the educational rights of children, not the goals of elite establishments, at its focus.
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