Rite of Passage for French Students Receives Poor Grade

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PARIS -- Those who believe the old bromides about the French and their slack work ethic would do well to observe the frenzy of study that seizes this country's teenagers each June.

By the hundreds of thousands, they pack themselves into libraries, flood their bloodstreams with stimulants and spend weeks generally cramming for the baccalauréat, better known simply as the "bac," the exhaustive finishing exam that has racked the nerves of France's students since the time of Napoleon.

The weeklong national test is the sole element considered in the awarding of high school diplomas, themselves known as bacs; without a passing score, university doors are closed and job prospects are generally grim. The test is at the core of all high school curriculums, in Paris as in France's far-flung overseas territories, in establishments both public and private, and many consider it to be a foundational rite of passage, even an element of French identity.

Like so very much else in France, it is an emanation of the government in Paris, which decrees the testing dates and approves each of the questions. It is, in the words of a 2008 Senate report, "the veritable cornerstone of our educational system" and a "national monument."

And yet, for all the reverence, nostalgia or stress that it still inspires, its utility is growing ever less clear, according to French officials, students, parents, teachers and employers -- most everyone, really.

"Each year more ridiculous, the comedy of the bac has returned," Luc Ferry, the philosopher who once served as education minister and oversaw the test, wrote this month in the newspaper Le Figaro.

France once liked to think of its educational system as a model for the world, but studies show academic performance here to be unexceptional and on the decline, and officials have in recent years begun to fret. Increasingly, the bac is viewed as the flagship of a flawed system, a symbol not so much of French excellence but of what is wrong with education here.

It focuses too little on logic or creativity, many complain, and too much on rote knowledge and the esoterica that thrill the Parisian cultural aristocracy. Some critics say it has grown too easy, with a pass rate of about 90 percent last year; others contend that it now serves as little more than an exceptionally inefficient way to weed out the least-proficient students.

French students remain attached to the bac, nonetheless.

Outside the Lycée Condorcet in Paris last week, Justine Ripoll said that the test she was about to take served little practical purpose, but she defended it just the same.

"It's more a rite of passage than an exam," said Ms. Ripoll, 18, dragging lightly on a morning cigarette. "That's why it would be a shame to get rid of it. Everybody's been through it. It's traumatized everybody."

The center-left government has pledged to "renew" the national school system, but its focus is on primary schools and there are no immediate plans for changes to the bac.

Still, the test needs to "evolve," said Vincent Peillon, the current education minister. "Everyone is reflecting on it, and they're right to."

The first edition of the test, given in Latin in 1808, produced 31 "bacheliers," or bac-holders. This year, 664,709 candidates were registered for one of the 91 versions of the bac: 3 "general" options (focused on the sciences, economics or literature), 8 bacs for technical students and 80 "professional" bacs for students in vocational programs.

As recently as 1945, high school diplomas remained the province of an intellectual elite, held by only 3 percent of all teenagers. More than 70 percent of young people earn bacs today.

As a result, the writing, administering and grading of the exam now mobilize a heaving bureaucracy. About 170,000 schoolteachers have been requisitioned this year to oversee the exams, which include a total of 3,990 original questions developed over several months by state commissions held to the strictest confidentiality.

(That secrecy cannot prevent certain forms of cheating, of course. A 52-year-old woman disguised as her 19-year-old daughter was discovered last week here taking the English portion of the exam, the police said.)

Two weeks of grading is conducted by schoolteachers and overseen by juries of instructors and university professors. The cost of producing, administering and grading the test reached about $80 million last year, according to official figures.

But that number does not include the salaries paid to educators during the tests and grading period. A study by a major educators' union, S.N.P.D.E.N., put the "true cost" of the general and technical bacs at a combined $2 billion.

Given the relative ease of passing the test, the bac's primary function now seems to be to identify and punish the weakest students, the educators' union argued. In effect, the state pays nearly $2 billion to prevent about 60,000 students from moving on to higher education, the union said, well more than $30,000 per failed student.

"These resources would perhaps be better used" to help them succeed, the union said in a statement this month.

Other critics worry that too many students earn the bac these days. Rather than raise 80 percent of students to the level of the test, "we put the baccalauréat at the level of 80 percent of students," wrote Jacques Julliard, a columnist at the newsmagazine Marianne, this year.

Indeed, the test does not function terribly effectively as a filter for higher education. In public universities here, less than half of first-year students, all of them bacheliers, move on to the second year.

The test does not evaluate the most relevant of students' capabilities, many critics say. "In France, we evaluate essentially only hard knowledge, not at all abilities," said Emmanuel Davidenkoff, the editor of the education magazine L'Étudiant. "But that, that's the whole French system."

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy famously lamented, for instance, that "La Princesse de Clèves," a 17th-century novel, had been included by a "sadist or an imbecile" in an examination for entry-level state administrative posts.

But change is slow in coming. Lawmakers have in recent years moved to include classroom grades in criteria for diplomas, Mr. Davidenkoff said, but withdrew their proposals after student protests.

To count classroom grades would betray the French egalitarian ideal, many argue, because grading standards vary between schools and instructors.

"Everyone is sort of equal in front of the bac," said Corentin Durand, a 17-year-old official in the Union Nationale Lycéenne, the country's largest high school union.

Marion Legal, 17, was less enthusiastic.

"I don't get it, myself," said Ms. Legal, outside the Lycée Condorcet on a gray morning last week. Surely, a "diploma of reference" is a useful measure for hiring purposes, she said, but the bac is probably not the right one. Ms. Legal was about to take the four-hour philosophy portion of the test.

One of the prompts inquired: "What do we owe the state?" Presumably, responses bemoaning the bac have not been well received.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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