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.


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