There's sum confusion over tests

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Frances Mechan-Schmidt explains Germany's own exams fiasco

Last year in England - as teachers will remember only too well - the fiasco over the handling of key stage tests led to the scrapping of the exams for 14-year-olds.

In Germany, a different series of problems may trigger the end of a school-leaving exam, at least in the state of Hesse. There, 15,000 pupils in gymnasium (grammar) schools face having to repeat their final exams in maths because of question errors and mix-ups when pupils sat their tests in March.

Maths teachers handing out papers on exam day were horrified to discover no fewer than three mistakes and two discrepancies that included switching plus and minus signs in one integral calculation.

Dorothea Henzler, the Hessian education minister, swiftly offered profuse apologies as well as a solution. The hapless pupils face an unusual choice: if they want, they can repeat the exam, then have the better result recorded in their school-leaving certificate. Or stand by their original mark.

Kerstin Geis, chairwoman of Hesse's parents' council, has called for the maths results to be adjusted instead to reflect the exceptional circumstances and to avoid making pupils resit the exam.

Meanwhile the pupils have posted accounts of the day's events on the website SchulerVZ, a school chatroom, describing how teachers repeatedly interrupted the exam to make announcements and give updates. Education authorities sent out an SOS mail on the morning of the test to warn teachers of the impending disaster, but it failed to reach all schools in time.

Now Katharina Horn, Hesse's spokeswoman on school policy, is demanding that the state-wide Abitur - a university-entrance qualification - should be abolished. This was introduced in 2007 after Germany's poor showing in the 2001 Pisa tests, a programme that compares pupils' performance internationally, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Out of the 16 federal states in Germany, 14 now monitor schools' performance through state-wide exams, while 15 have reduced the time spent at grammar school from nine to eight years in an effort to tighten the curriculum and speed up pupils' entry to higher education.

With passions running high at state level, it is hard to imagine the idea of a nationwide Abitur, tentatively mooted by Annette Schavan, federal education and research minister, meeting with any success in the near future. The 16 state education ministers fiercely defend their sovereignty in matters of education policy.

Josef Kraus, president of Germany's Teachers' Association, said such a step would be beset with "all sorts of practical problems". A nationwide exam would mean everyone getting school holidays at the same time, which would lead to "unimaginable chaos on the roads". Roland Koch, the state premier for Hesse, agreed. Moreover, he continued, such exams would "contradict the way the academic year and school holidays are organised in Germany".

Perhaps - but pupils in his state will be looking forward to their holidays more than ever if they have to sit their maths tests again.

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