Another year, another round of matriculation exams

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.

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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.

May 11, 2016
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Member
I have been following the debate on matriculation examinations from another angle. In Finland, there also is a central state-controlled matriculation examination which leads to a solemn graduation ceremony (reminding of olden times when only a small part of the children went to gymnasium and this exam automatically granted admission to the university), and in contrast to the USA, there are no standard nationwide tests through all school grades. Basically, the state matriculation exam (which, of course, attracts lots of publicity and provokes yearly discussions in mass media as well) serves to hold the system together and ensure that all schools adhere to the same standards. (Otherwise, we could have what I have heard about Germany, for instance: “good” students of “good” gymnasiums change to a “poor” school for their last year, where they can very easily graduate with excellent marks.) But a central difference between Hungary and Finland is not that Finnish schools have salmon for school lunch and digital whiteboards in classrooms (as hvg.hu wrote some time ago: http://hvg.hu/itthon/20160415_finnorszag_kozoktatas_tampere_okostabla ) – not all of them have all of this and even less will have, considering the current government’s austerity measures! – but that schools and teachers have much more… Read more »
Member

“Orbán doesn’t like gymnasiums. Interestingly, all of his own children have attended one. ”

He does not like it for the masses…

Guest
The whole concept of education in Hungary (Gymnasium, at the end the Abitur or Matura which gives you the right to go to university …) is probably based on the old German/Austrian idea – don’t know how much that has changed in the 54 years since I had my Abitur … In Germany at least the success of the student’s last year’s activities is also considered besides the “schriftliche Prüfung” and in case of a larger difference an oral exam is added later. And of course there are alternatives for students who don’t correspond to the standard scheme – often called “the second way to education” (Zweiter Bildungsweg). And of course there should be a discussion whether everybody needs an Abitur and has to/wants to go to university – I’m sure that Fidesz wants a return to the good old times when it was a privilege of the upper/middle class to send their children to the Gymnasium. PS and a bit OT: I still remember our horrible teachers (there was a shortage after the war, so almost everybody with academic qualifications could become a teacher in the 50s) who told my friend, the son of a poor war widow living… Read more »
Guest

Please correct if misinformed but I have the understanding that in Magyarorszag if you miss the decisional ‘turn’ at a particular time your future is pretty much made up for you. That is a university career is denied and you’re off to a ‘tech’ school. And further that like in the olden days if daddy was a ditch digger you’d be more likely to be one too. Not such a great look at a future when it comes to life, liberty and happiness.

Looking back I get the feeling my life would have been very very different if my parents stayed in their own little back-water falus. Knowing what I know now, I personally wouldn’t have liked my wings to be clipped so early. I sure wouldn’t be in a great mood. I’d think enlightened young Magyars today at this time wouldn’t be either.

Istvan
Guest
As absurd as Eva finds the exam system in Hungary I bet it is superior to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) that we give to the kids just coming out of high school entering the military here. For example in reading its limited to Paragraph Comprehension (PC), and does not address higher level more comprehensive reading. Even Mathematics Knowledge (MK) does not encompass the skills necessary to target artillery with out the aide of a computer, and many enlisted men and women simply lack the math skills to comprehend what was required back in 1919 when Lester R Ford developed mathematics training for soldiers titled Elementary Mathematics for Field Artillery. I gave an ordinance team under my command several problems from Ford’s 1919 book and asked that they solve them without the aide of a calculator or computer program, using only paper and pencil. In the early 1990s only about one in twenty could answer the questions. Here is one of the 1919 questions I posed to my soldiers: A scout measures the angle between a line to an object C and the straight road along which he is passing. He proceeds along the road until, 1,300 yards… Read more »
Guest

Istvan, this is rather OT but I can tell you that mathematical calculation abilities have been a problem not only in Hungary for many years!
Just after I had got my Master in math and went into IT, I had the “opportunity” toadminister tests to around a hundred young people (students of all kind of subjects, from science to literature and languages) who also wanted to work in “Electronic Data Processing” as it was called then. I gave them a standard test (from IBM) and was horrified at the results – and that was almost 50 years ago!

PS: With your question re the distance you had me for a moment – normally you need more info to triangulate, but then I realised that you described an isosceles triangle …
But you have to know your angle sums to realise that! 🙂

tappanch
Guest

New turn in Orban’s mafia reality show:

The young prosecutor, who led the team investigating the Quaestor case (a friend of Orban’s stole about 1 BILLION euros from small investors) suddenly died.
The location of the money is unknown.

If there is no indictment satisfying the court before May 31, Orban’s friend will not be tried at all !!

tappanch
Guest
tappanch
Guest

The guy behind Mr Orban is Mr Tarsoly.

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tappanch
Guest

Mr Tarsoly can be seen with the highest ranking Catholic archbishop of Hungary (retired):

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tappanch
Guest

Prosecutor Nisman of Argentina was murdered 16 months ago.

petofi
Guest

Hungary–the new land of OPPORTUNITY!!

Why are so many Hungaricoes leaving?
Stay, and fry in your own pig-fat.

Hajra Magyarok!!

petofi
Guest

It is oh-so-easy to hate the numbskull, ‘szellhamos’, Magyaricoes!

Hajra, morons!

tappanch
Guest

Panama papers . Hungary-related companies in the database:

https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=&c=HUN&j=&e=&commit=Search

tappanch
Guest

Matolcsy’s cousin: Mr Szemerey:

https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/nodes/12097954

Guest

Not too much OT:
Hungary’s second largest commercial channel, which was recently acquired by government Film Commissioner Andrew G. Vajna, is planning to launch ten new TV channels soon, a move that professionals say would completely reshape the Hungarian media market …
http://bbj.hu/business/tv2-group-plans-to-launch-ten-new-channels_115942
This will be another factor in the dumbing down of Hungarians, my wife says – more stupid daily soaps …

Even today she is often angry and tells me:
No, we can’t visit our neighbours in the afternoon – the tv will be blasting at max loudness and they’re surely watching some soap opera and won’t be willing to switch it off if visitors arrive …
So we only go in the morning before lunch or in the early evening before dinner for a short talk …

Guest

Re: ‘stupid daily soaps’

When I heard Bell named ambassador I knew her background. In a way I wasn’t surprised that glitz tv, serials and soaps came onto the Magyar-American diplo experience. Better the ‘soaps’ to start and generate dialogue than back room ruckuses between people that start in different places when it comes to language.
‘Soaps’ seem serious but really soufflé light.

Guest

Not too much OT:

If you want to feel the frustration among Hungarians – just visit one of the sites like kepeslajoska.tumblr.com/

Hundreds, thousands even of pictures and caricatures of the current “Hungarian elite” here’s one example:

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