Czech students avoid state school leaving exams at least for next two years

Secondary students entering their final year breathed a sigh of relief at the end of their summer holidays. Under the current Education Act, new state school-leaving exams were to be introduced at all secondary schools as of the beginning of this school year. But in August, the president backed a decision by Czech deputies to postpone the introduction of the state exams until 2009.

Earlier this year, around five thousand secondary students protested in Prague against the new state high school leaving exams: their main complaint was that the planned exams had not been prepared sufficiently in advance. Another complaint: that those who would have to take the exams had not been given any details at the time they first entered the secondary school level.

Under the current system until now, all secondary schools prepared their own school-leaving tests, known in the Czech Republic as "maturita". In the past those came under much criticism, as some exams were harder than others and there is no way of comparing educational results of different schools. The debate over introducing new state exams started about ten years ago and preparation changes has cost more than 200 million crowns. Recently, the education ministry appointed a new head of CERMAT, the organization responsible for outlining the form of the future exams. The new director, Pavel Zeleny, is confident the tests will be ready by the beginning of 2009. But do we really need them, after so many years of debate?

"There are several reasons for having unified school-leaving exams. The Czech education system is based on the high autonomy of individual schools, which is supported even further by ongoing curricular reforms. The content of learning is based on individual schools. If the state doesn't have control over the educational results, than it loses control over the system. And this is what the state should do according to the constitution."

Mr Zeleny says it is mainly students who will benefit from the unified state exams; he is well aware that it is crucial to win the students over.

"The exam must be useful for students and the present model doesn't respect that. The matriculation exam should facilitate entrance tests to universities and colleges and serve as a certificate of knowledge, especially language knowledge, in future work places."

The proposed model had been criticised both by teachers and students, mainly because it didn't respect the diversified system of secondary schools and required all students to pass the same exam. Pavel Zeleny again:

"The proposal was based on one test for all students in the final year of secondary school, that is, for students at the elite general high schools on one hand and students at technical schools on the other. If you create an easier test, so that you achieve a reasonable rate of success, then for 70 to 80 percent of high-school graduates the test will be useless. If you make the test average in difficulty, than you have to count on a high failure rate, which is a political risk and no one will take it."

For the future, Mr Zeleny has proposed a two-level system of exams, with the advanced level serving as an entrance exam to universities and colleges. It would be up to students to decide which level to take. The new exam would also be based on three compulsory tests: in the Czech language, a foreign language, and one optional subject.

One of the country's top specialists in education, Jana Strakova, who works at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis and publishes the educational monthly Moderni vyucovani, agrees that the formerly proposed state exams were not suitable. However, no unified exam makes sense without a thorough change of the whole system, she says.

"If there was a goal to enlarge the proportion of general education for all students than I think it would be necessary to change the curricula for all secondary schools so that there was some general core. Than it would be possible to develop a standardized exam that would be based on this common general core. But this is not case in the Czech curricula. Even now, when the Czech Republic is actually undergoing educational reform and all curricular documents for all secondary schools have changed, the common core is still not there. So actually we didn't make any step in the curricula to unify the secondary education for all tracks but we try to attempt for this unification at the end of the study which I think is a problematic aim."

Jana Strakova points out that these systems usually work in countries with unified secondary schooling, but so far it has not been proven successful in countries with a diversified secondary education.

"Usually the situation is such that countries try to standardize the level of achievement for students that have the same curricula. They just want to make sure that all schools that deliver these curricula deliver them at a sufficient level. Actually I don't have any knowledge about any success in countries that have such diversified knowledge in the secondary school system as the Czech Republic."

I wanted to know what those who are most concerned think about the state exam and so I visited a gymnasium (high school) at Prague's district of Zizkov to talk to some of the students who have just entered their final year.

student: "This whole idea is not worked out. People in secondary schools, what we call gymnasiums, they have a completely different level and completely different approach of things they learn. I don't think people who work at construction sites have to have the same level of knowledge as people who are going to study lets say law. I don't think we need to have a unified exam."

student: "I don't actually like the whole idea, because I don't think that we and those students from all the different secondary schools can do a unified exam because we study differently and we do lots and lots of different schools."

So what should we do now, ten years after the debates have been started? Jana Strakova believes no changes can happen unless they involve a broader public.

"Actually I think that we should start at the very beginning. What we need is broader debate within society. I think that the main problem is that there is an absence of certain conceptual thinking about the whole educational system. Our society is changing very quickly and Czech education is very traditional. It focuses on factual knowledge. Recently there has been an attempt to emphasize the so-called 'key' competences in the curricula but we still need a broader view about the needs and goals of education in modern society and we need to adapt the education system with respect to this broader picture."