I will never understand the fascination of the Hungarian media with the matriculation exams held about this time every year. However hard it may be to imagine, in just one week almost two hundred articles appeared about the ins and outs of the questions students had to answer in such subjects as Hungarian language and literature, history, English, math, and biology.
The matriculation tsunami began on May 2 with the Hungarian literature exam, which most teachers considered to be easy. A few hours later, after the test was over, we could read about student reactions to the test and which exam questions were the most popular. This year it looks as if an Áron Tamási short story topped the popularity list because, as one teacher remarked, “even if the student knows nothing about Áron Tamási, it will be a cinch to answer the questions.” On the other hand, the first hour of the test, a passage from Gyula Moravcsik’s book World of the Papyruses, was considered to be difficult. Moravcsik (1892-1972) was a professor of Greek philology and Byzantine history. Some people considered the choice odd.
On the second day of tests students had to answer questions on Hungarian and world history. Less on world history and a lot more on Hungarian history. A few minutes after the test began, history teachers announced that the test was difficult, but three hours later students reported that it was actually very easy and some of them left the exam early. A frustrated student complained that he had memorized an incredible number of facts, which turned out to be a useless exercise because, to his great surprise, many of the questions were “of the thinking type.”
What is the point of these matriculation exams? First of all, there are two levels of exams: the regular one, which testifies to the student’s successful completion of studies at the high school level, and a higher-level test, which also serves as an entrance exam to university. Far in advance of the exams, students receive a fairly long list of topics from which the final questions are picked.
I often wonder whether this whole nerve-wrecking matriculation examination ritual is really necessary. What does it achieve? The month the students spend preparing for the exam seems to me, at least, to be a waste of time. Within years, if not months, most of them will remember very little if anything of their cramming.
The history exam, for instance, is made up of 12 multiple choice sections and three essays. However anxiety inducing it may be to anticipate the exam, in fact most of the time the answers to the multiple choice questions are obvious, either from the text or from the graphs accompanying them. And it seems, from reading the instructions to grading the essay questions, that expectations are low.
One of the chief demands of teachers in the last few months was a free choice of textbooks, from a reasonably long list of possibilities, as was the case before Rózsa Hoffmann and Viktor Orbán decided to limit the choice to two. Yet even in those days, all students had to take the very same exam all over the country. Then as now it was a central authority that decided on the guidelines for grading the answers. So, basically, the teachers have been constrained all along by the expectations of the ministry that handles the matriculation exams. It is what in this country we call teaching to the test. The performance of a teacher and a school is judged by the grades of the students taking the matriculation exams after Grade 12.
I also have my doubts about the use of matriculation exams as predictors of the university careers of students. And that takes me back to the Hungarian literature test, which included a long passage about a topic that had absolutely nothing to do with literature and on which students were expected to spend an hour. It was considered to be difficult by the students as well as the teachers. The interesting thing is that this passage and the attendant questions are quite similar to what American high school students are faced with on the SAT exam, which most major colleges and universities require. Here are some practice questions that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Although the SATs have come under a lot of pressure over the past years, many colleges and universities still consider them an important factor in making admissions decisions, as you can see from the top national universities’ average SAT scores. To answer questions after reading a long and fairly complicated passage the student needs to exhibit concentration, attention to detail, and the ability to reason logically. The questions test aptitudes, not the mastery of a subject. These aptitudes may not guarantee academic success, but they are a much better predictor of academic success than the ability to regurgitate facts that are forgotten in no time and/or might not be useful for anything in later life.
But I’m sure the tradition of matriculation exams will continue whether it makes sense or not. Girls will act as if they still lived in the nineteenth century and will put on their sailor blouses, blue skirts, and stockings. And boys will appear every day in blue pants and white shirts instead of wearing their most comfortable clothes for three nervous hours of hard work. But that’s the tradition from the days when very few people even finished gymnasium. Then it was a really big deal. It’s hard to imagine, but in 1950 only 16,000 students finished high school and only 4,000 graduated from university. Today over 112,000 students took their matriculation examinations. We could laud that obvious progress but for the fact that 112,000 is far fewer than the number of students who entered gymnasiums during the socialist-liberal period and took their matriculation exams in 2011, when it was over 140,000. Orbán doesn’t like gymnasiums. Interestingly, all of his own children have attended one. The youngest, Flóra, is just beginning grade nine–of course, in a gymnasium.