Grading in Turkey


I never understood why we couldn’t chew gum in school. I thought my parents were crazy for forbidding me to ride with a driver until he or she had been driving for a year. I’ve never thought it made sense for poor people to pay taxes that get refunded anyway. Life is full of those irritating mysteries, and we just learn to live with them.

Turkish Ministry of Education rules are like that. Ataturk, the Father of Modern Turkey, mandated education for all, and the Ministry of Education was established to make sure that happened in a thorough and egalitarian way. Good plan.

Of course, I’ve had to adjust from one educational system to another, and I admit that our Western methods often deserve the criticism that we aren’t exacting enough or that we put too much energy into making education fun. Point taken. Perhaps that’s why the U.S. is now putting so much energy into establishing graduation standards; we must assure that our graduates are both literate and knowledgeable.

In Turkish education, standardization is not only required, it dominates every facet of education. Students take a pre-determined set of subjects, with a heavy dose of science and math. Turkish students are eons ahead of their American peers in science and math, though much of their learning is rote rather than theoretical. In the Western system students work with the theories behind equations, while Turkish students tend to memorize the equations. These kids are masters of memorization. If I give my students a sample essay to review before an exam, many of them will memorize the entire essay and adapt it to the prompt on their exam. Only in Turkey!

I guess what I mostly want to say is that Turkish students work their tails off—at least many of them. (Of course, we have lazy kids here, too.) Education is highly valued, though it’s more about grades than learning.

And therein lies the conundrum. Grades.

In a country that demands excellence from its students, the grading system defies logic.

Let me explain. In the U.S., we grade on a percentage system, usually with 60 percent required to pass, and ten percent each for A through D. Turkey grades on a percentage system as well, but with a passing grade of 45%. (Eat your hearts out, American teens!)

Of course, teachers grade tougher in Turkey, so I think a 45% might be close to a U.S. 60%, though I can’t say that for certain. Instead of giving letter grades, the Turkish system is numeric:

25-44%=1 (failing)
0-24%=0 (failing)

Here’s the rub, though. A student’s final grade is not the average of the two semester percentages–it’s the average of the two numeric grades. For instance, if a student gets a 4 (as low as 70%) one term and a 5 (as low as 85%) the second term, the average is 4.5, which is rounded up to a 5, in spite of the fact that this student actually has a year average of 77.5, a mid-four.

In reviewing this system, I’ve computed that it’s possible to get a passing grade in Turkey with a course average of 27.5%. If a student did nothing one term (it happens) earning 0% (a 0 grade), then kicked in to earn a 55% the next term (a 3), the 0 and the 3 are averaged to make a 1.5, which is rounded up to a 2, a passing grade. This student has only earned 27.5% overall for the year (nearly 18% below a passing 45%), yet he/she passes. I stand amazed.

That’s not all.

If that student didn’t quite make a 55% grade the second semester, he could take an exam the following August, a “grade raising exam”, to pass the course. Any student can opt to take an exam to change their grade, and this 90-minute exam can override an entire year’s course grade. What that means is that you could fail a year with zero points, yet pass a course through the exam. There are students who bank on this. Some don’t pass the test, which puts them in deep doo-doo with baba and anne (dad and mom).

As you can see, this system defies logic. Grades are paramount in this country, and every step is taken to enable students to be successful. Cheating is rampant, and it’s the rare student who resists the temptation. I value honesty highly, so this has been a struggle for me. (I admit that I’ve lied in my life, but I can honestly say that I never cheated in school–my students don’t believe me.)

Law suits are common here, too, not over teacher behavior, but over what is seen as unfair grading practice. That’s why it’s so crucial for teachers to moderate exam grades so that grading is equalized across the entire grade.

Students here are constantly computing their averages, and at the end of the term, they will openly announce the exact grade they need on their exam or class grade to meet their goal. “I need a 73 on this exam, Ms. Mershon,” expecting me to take that into consideration as I grade it. One student asked me how much it would cost to “buy” a few percentage points. I grinned and said, “Oh, a million dollars or so.” I think he was serious. I wasn’t.

I love Turkey and I enjoy teaching here, but I can’t help feeling professionally compromised by their grading system. I imagine all the teachers do. We just hope our doctors didn’t squeak through on grade-raising exams.



It wasn’t easy getting to Jordan; the winds were high, and the ferry delayed. In fact, our ferry from Nuweiba, Egypt, to Aqaba, Jordan, sat out on the Red sea overnight. The only thing worse than waiting, waiting, waiting must have been sitting out on that ship—seasick, seasick, seasick.

We got to the ferry landing about ten o’clock Monday morning and waited all day. The back window of our van exploded (high winds?), and Mollie, Allana, and Leslie treated us to a hilarious sock-puppet show in the empty back window. “Put a sock in it!” “Do they let Red Sox into Jordan?”, “Once again, you’ve put your foot in your mouth!” What joy to travel with young people.

We finally gave up waiting for the ferry at 6 PM and found ourselves rooms at a quaint beachside hotel where they treated us like royalty. After a delicious Egyptian dinner, our host encouraged us to check out the beach (VERY windy), where we discovered a thatched-roof, adobe-walled disco that became our home for the night.

Our waiter spun the tunes and played the lights, while the owner pulled out water pipes. The chef grilled corn and sweet potatoes and brought out spiced nut and bean snacks. We danced off our huge dinner, then laughed ourselves silly at the cross-dresser-belly-dancer. Leslie raved, “I had a crush on him before his act, but now I’m CRAZY about him!” Too funny!

We finally boarded the ferry the next day after waiting in the station for three hours. We waited two more on board as they loaded, took three hours crossing, waited another hour to disembark, and stood yet another at customs—10 hours! Passport distribution in Aqaba was a joke. A guard read off passport names one-by-one as he held them aloft for anyone to grab. ARAUGHHH!!!! One of our travel companions quipped, “They couldn’t make this system less efficient if they tried!” Too true.

On Wednesday morning we finally made our way to Wadi Rum, a desert preserve in southern Jordan. It was BEAUTIFUL! We rode on benches in the bed of a 4-wheel-drive Toyota pickup, soaking in the moonscape terrain. We’d been outfitted in Arab red-and-white scarves, protection from sun, wind, sand, and cold as we raced across the sands.

A Bedouin rode up and offered us rides on his camel. (Mere coincidence?) We took a break to indulge. That was when I learned that our driver, Abu Kamel, had two wives. According to our guide, “He drinks camel milk, which gives him too much ‘energy’ for one wife.” Hmmm…

We explored the steep dunes barefoot, racing down and trudging back up. We drank Bedouin tea and relaxed with a HUGE outdoor lunch of countless dishes, my favorite a grilled eggplant salad. My goodness, it was GOOD! For about ten dollars we ate like kings.

There were two other things I loved in Jordan. The first was Petra, which must be seen to be believed. The most impressive scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed there, and I felt like an ancient explorer stepping into a secret world. Petra is a hidden valley in southwestern Jordan with spectacular classical facades carved right into the valley’s sandstone cliffs (by the Nabateans and the Greeks, for the most part). It’s spectacular, especially after hiking through the Siq, a narrow rock gorge (1.2 K long and 3 to 12 meters wide) that serves as the main entrance to the ancient city. Our guide, Mahmud, pointed out niches and carvings as we strolled down the Siq, but I’ll never forget my amazement as we viewed the impressive 3-story treasury building through the slit of rock ahead. Amazing!

We were awed at the many structures carved from the rock walls of Petra, but the most fascinating part of the day was our guide. Mahmud had grown up a Bedouin shepherd, shoeless and with one set of clothes. He shared many stories of growing up in a Petra cave, moving to the desert for the summer. His father had chosen him, the middle of nine children, to attend school in the winter. Mahmud hadn’t wanted to leave his world of goats and camels, but his father urged him to travel the 15 K to school, each morning saying, “just one more day.” Day after day, Mahmud hiked up the Siq and found a ride to school. Obviously a very bright man, he had been singled out by King Hussein as one of the top students in Jordan. He told of his anxious trip to Amman to meet the king, who paid for his high school education in England and university in Amman. “I was the only one of my siblings able to get an education,” he told us apologetically. “We all still struggle with the cultural shifts. My mother still lives in a tent, though the government has built her a house. When I’m feeling stressed, I visit her and find great peace in the smells of my childhood,” he said. Mahmud now has a wife and three children, and he feels stress about providing for them, just as his parents did.

So many stories, and so little space to share them.

Our last adventure was an afternoon at the Dead Sea. My goodness, if you ever wondered what it’s like to be a cork, go to the Dead Sea. It’s the most dense, most saline water in the world. While most oceans have 3.5% salinity, the Dead Sea has 30%. A jump into the Dead Sea evokes immediate hysterics, let me tell you. I never imagined it could be such a hoot to lie on TOP of the water, rolling like a bobble toy. You can lie in the water with arms and legs up in the air and STILL float! We met a film crew slathering themselves with Dead Sea mud along the shore, so of course we joined them. It was a blast, and Allana agreed to being buried in the heavy black stuff. (Of course, our skin is now beautiful.) People pay thousands of dollars for the same treatment, and we got it for free, including laughter therapy.

Well, all good things must come to and end, and we eventually left the water (and mud), said goodbye to Jordan, and flew back home to Istanbul.

I do love this life!


Ask me why I never realized that Mount Sinai was in Egypt. Never a great geographic or Biblical scholar, I still could have figured it out. I knew that Mount Sinai was the site of the burning bush where Moses received the tablets of the ten commandments as he led his people out of Egypt. Sinai peninsula—yup!
Our well-loved guide Moustafa met us at the Sharm el Sheikh ferry station and brought us to Dahab, a popular Red Sea diving community. We stayed in a luxurious beachside hotel, where we took full advantage of the pristine beaches and sunshine. We’d be leaving to climb Mount Sinai at 2:00 AM so we could experience the night sky and the spectacular Sinai sunrise.
Or not.
We climbed into our van bleary-eyed, shocked that we had our own private security guard, Khalef. He was a clean cut young man sporting a formal suit, and we didn’t realize until two days later that his jacket concealed a considerable weapon. He charmed us through five (count them) security roadblocks, one where we had to show our passports. Mount Sinai is well-protected.
Just our luck, the weather had turned cold, and St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain would be closed (Sunday), so there would be few hikers on a trek usually made by hundreds.
When we were told that the peak was snowy, my warm-weather friend Terri announced, “I have no burning desire to do this climb,” and returned to the van to sleep for the six hours we’d be gone.
The rest of us donned our warmies and started up the wide, dark, rocky path. Our Bedoin guide, Mahmud, often climbs the mountain two or three times a day (6 K each way to the 7,498 foot summit) . We smelled camels and were offered camel rides from the darkness, but we refused.
It took us a while to get used to the slope, and breathing was hard. The cold was shocking, too–about five degrees Fahrenheit with a major wind chill. Quite a change from lounging on the beach that afternoon. We were FREEZING!
Moustafa had never climed Mount Sinai and he’d never seen snow, so when spots of white appeared along the path, he was excited. Within an hour of climbing our shoes were soggy from the ever-increasing snow.
Rock hut refreshment stops are scattered along the path, but most of them were closed. About halfway up the mountain, Mahmud led us into a hut and lit a lamp. Lo and behold, there was a young Bedoin man curled up under blankets in the corner of what seemed like a little corner store, complete with a gas burner. Moustafa treated us to coffee, tea, and candy bars while we chatted with our guide and his friend.
Once again warm, we braced ourselves to continue our trek, which grew steeper, icier, and more difficult. Determined to get to the top, stars or no, we picked our way carefully up the mountainside, avoiding icy spots. We had flashlights, and the moon cast a pale glow through the fog and snow.
I thought we had 149 rock steps to climb near the summit, so you can imagine my dismay when I learned there were 749. Mahmud called them the Steps of Repentance, and believe me, I repented every stupid thing I’ve ever said or done. That’s a LOT of steps (and I’ve done a LOT of stupid things).
Actually, there’s another route up Mount Sinai, 3750 steps straight up the mountain, built by a monk as repentance for his transgressions, (which must have been considerable). Imagine how much repenting you’d do on THOSE steps!
Along the way we came across a small group trying to revive a man who had passed out from the altitude. THAT was a bit unsettling, but our guide seemed unruffled, so we continued. We saw the man later, helping a woman as she slipped down the path. Unfortunately, a number of hikers were underdressed and wearing slick (though fashionable) footwear. Oops!
In any case, we finally made it to the top, where there’s a small mosque (12th century) and the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. A group of young Egyptians were huddled under blankets on the lee side of the chapel, and they invited me to join them. They enjoyed practicing their English, and I found them very entertaining.
The sun rose while we were on Mount Sinai, the only sign a hint of light through the enveloping clouds. We shivered at the summit for about 20 minutes, then headed back down. Sun peeked through the clouds a few times, and the girls attacked Moustafa with snowballs. He was a fast learner and insists that he won in spite of getting snow down his neck. It’s a guy thing.
When we finally got to the bottom, Moustafa negotiated a private tour of the St. Catherine’s Monastery to see the reputed Burning Bush, a huge weeping rosebush. The monastery houses a Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, and a Muslim Mosque. All three faiths share the Old Testament, and at least in that one monastery, they cohabit peacefully.
Would that it happened everywhere!

Exploring the Nile

I’ve just spent ten days in Egypt, exploring Cairo, the Nile River Valley
(on a cruise ship), and the Sinai peninsula, which was my favorite.
Actually, i’ve had a lot of favorite experiences. It goes without saying
that 4000 years’ worth of pyramids, tombs, and temples are awe-inspiring. We
even visited the Temple of Karnak, which should bring smiles to anyone old
enough to remember Johnny Carson.

Anyway,one of our most interesting experiences was a felucca ride on the
Nile. A felucca is a fairly primitive sailboat used along the Nile.
It has one sail that hangs at a bit of a slant from its single mast, much
like a sailfish sail, and one man runs the boat, which can hold as many as
12 or 14 people. Anyway, we had two delightful felucca rides in Aswan (which
is LOVELY), so when we had a free afternoon in Luxor, we decided to hire a
felucca on our own. We did that before checking the wind. DUH!

My friend Allana negotiated a great price–the equivalent of 9 dollars for a
two-hour sail to Banana Island, exactly half of what the young captain
requested. Of course, he initially refused the price, but when we walked
away, he agreed to it. Business was slow.

Captain Fox hoisted the sail, but he had to row out of the dock using hand-
crafted oars made from 2 by 4 lumber, painted. They were pretty worthless,
particularly for a 20-foot long and 8-foot wide boat. He assured us that he
would get out onto the river and catch the wind. What wind? Our tour guide,
Aiman moved in to row with him, and they were both working hard. Captain Fox
removed his sweater, then his shirt. He kept a t-shirt on, though. (I never
saw an Egyptian man shirtless.) They rowed us all the way across the Nile to
a group of people who were standing by some motorboat ferries, so we felt
confident that we’d get a tow. Nope.

Captain Fox removed his jeans (He had patterned boxers, which were quite nice),
hopped off the boat, and began TOWING us along the shore. We felt terrible.
it had been well over 45 minutes, and we begged him to give up and we’d help
row back. No dice. he was pulling toward a water buffalo, which we thought
might be enlisted to service the boat. he pulled on by it, sloshing through
the muddy riverbank, sometimes up on the prickly grass banks. He pulled us
by a few camels who looked at us curiously, but Captain Fox continued. He
was determined to get his fee–and to get us to the promised Banana island.
Allana reminded us that he had been well aware that there was no wind, and
that he knew what he’d been getting into. True, but it didn’t make us feel
much better.

He enlisted Aiman (our guide) to wave a white scarf as boats came by, which
became quite a production. Who could resist?

A tugboat finally came by towing two other feluccas, and they sidled up to
pick up a tow rope. There we were, three sailboats lined up behind a
tugboat. ‘The Nile Felucca Choo-Choo” Dee dubbed it. It was pretty

All good things come to an end, though, and the tow rope came
untied, so once again we were stranded in the middle of the river. Captain
Fox let us ‘woman’ the oars, which was fun–we rowed back to shore, and our
intrepid hero jumped back into the water and manned a new tow rope.

We finally arrived at Banana Island, after a farmer chewed out our Captain
for treading on his land. I think he wanted money or something. Captain Fox
pulled his jeans back on and escorted us up a path away from the water.
There we were treated to a serviceable bathroom, a banana plantation tour,
and a few bunches of delicious (though tiny) bananas. When we got back to
the felucca, Captain Fox scrubbed down the decks and pulled out a little
stove to brew us some tea. Nile water tea? Though we weren’t sure about
drinking it, we were all too polite to refuse. he had a little table on
board for serving, and he spooned in sugar from a china sugar bowl.

WE assumed we’d be towed back to the dock, especially since Captain Fox took
endless time cleaning up, tying up the sail, putting his shirt back on, etc.
We were pretty astonished when he pulled out the oars again.

No one offered to tow us, and we all took turns rowing the boat back across
the nile. Fortunately, this trip was downstream, so it wasn’t as strenuous.
There was no towing, just rowing.

me-dee-row.jpgWe watched the sun set over the Nile,
laughed as we raced to escape the path of an oncoming cruise ship, and bid
our friendly captain a fond farewell. of course we gave him a big tip. A
HUGE tip. He had known exactly what he was doing. We negotiated a great bargain,
we had a delightful adventure, and he was well paid. Everyone was happy.