I feel compelled to do a bit of ranting about grades. Hope you don’t mind.
Today is the sixth and last day of final exams here at Koç. The kids sit two exams a day, ranging from 40 to 80 minutes. Most students go into an exam knowing exactly what percentage they need to earn the final grade they seek. Weird, huh?

A few weeks before exams—Friday morning blues on the 3rd floor

Grades are the Be-All and End-All of the Turkish educational system. That and the Ö.S.S., the university entrance exam (but that’s another story). Actually, I find the grading system here both unfair and enabling. Hence, my rant:
First of all, 45% is a passing grade in Turkey (in the U.S. it’s 60%). Here’s the curve:

  • 85 to 100%  is a 5, the top grade (no pluses or minuses, thank you)
  • 70 to 84% is a 4
  • 55 to 69% is a 3 (considered average)
  • 45 to 54% is a 2 (still passing, but unimpressive)
  • 25 to 44% is a 1, not passing
  • 0 to 24% is a 0, a dismal failure

Each student has 1-3 oral grades (usually class work) and 2-3 written grades (exams) for each class in a semester, depending on how many times the class meets per week. The system for oral grades is determined individually by each teacher, while the written grades come from uniform common exams. For example, we have about 10 or 11 sections in each grade, and all those sections take exactly the same exams for each course they take. That’s to keep things equitable.

The kids arrived bleary-eyed today after a week of late nights studying.

The other thing we do to make grading fair is moderation—sometimes a struggle. Everyone on the English team grades the same 2 or 3 exams according to the rubric, then we compare the grades we gave. Next we discuss differences and figure out how to adapt our grading to an agreed-on norm. It’s hard. After hours of grading our own students’ papers, we have other teachers re-grade (moderate) some of them, particularly the highest and lowest ones. It’s VERY time-consuming, but it’s important in this culture where parents sue the school over grades. Really.

Few studied this morning, though other days they were more focused.

At least a few of the girls studied…

…as did a few in room 304.

Now, imagine a teacher who feels philosophically opposed to grading in the first place, and plunk her in a situation like this where life is all about grades. I’ve had to rethink my approach to education and move from my preferred  +, √, —  “evaluation system” and go back to a traditional 100-point system. ARAUGHH!!!!
Oh—but there’s MORE!

My own juniors (in another testing room), focused as usual (that’s Nisan waving.)

In the end, the student who squeaks out a low 4 with 70% gets the very same 4 as the student who earned 84%, fourteen percentage points higher. Enter: THE BEGGARS. Yes, folks. We have them. They’re well-intentioned, of course. “Oh, it was so close, can’t you just give me/him/her a few more points?” Grades are so important here that parents get into the act along with their kids. Not only is final exam time stressful, but it sets off a barrage of BEGGING! PLEADING! BARGAINING! (Gosh—I haven’t been offered a bribe yet. Hmmm…)

Hard at work on the history exam–one more to go!

Think that’s enough? Well, there’s even more, my friends. It’s the way the grades are averaged. Within a semester, grade percentages are averaged together to find a numeric percentage, which determines the semester grade. BUT—the two semester grades are averaged in a new and enabling way. If you get the same final grade both semesters, that’s all well and good. A 3 and a 3 average out to a 3. If you do better one term, though, the top grade rules. For instance, a 3 and a 2 make—not 2.5, but 3! (Remember, no pluses or minuses.) So, for instance, a student who finishes the first semester with a low 3 (55%) and does a bit of slacking off the second semester and barely squeaks out a 2 (45%) should have an average of 50%. Right? Well, that 50 magically becomes not a 2 (which it should be) but a 3, just the same as the student who earned 69% both terms for an overall average of 69%, a high 3. There’s nearly a 20% difference over the year for the same grade. Hmmm… Something’s wrong. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Saffet takes every exam seriously. He wants 5’s, and usually gets them.

I figured out that a student who fails with a low 1 first term (25%) and a low 2 the second term (45%) ends up with a passing grade of 2—with a mere 35%, ten percent below the (already low) passing grade of 45%. Such a deal for the low achiever!
And there’s MORE, my friends. If, after a dismal year a student is unhappy with his or her grade, there’s the option of taking a grade-changing exam during the summer. These exams are difficult, but for the intelligent but lazy student, they’re a godsend. I don’t even want to KNOW more about them.

They’re all focused—except Yunus. No surprise.

Zeynep just asked me, “Are you writing about grades in Turkey or grades at Koç?”
“Aren’t they the same?” I wondered.
“I think it’s worse at Koç,” she said. “There’s more pressure here.”
Point taken. Poor kids… No wonder they dragged themselves to school this morning with bleary eyes and collapsed into their desks. Six days of this would undo anyone.
If I sound biased, I am. I hate grades, and it breaks my heart that they’re so important in this country. I also hate it that the system is so unfair yet at the same time so enabling.
The flip side is that it’s been a joy to teach these kids. I love them, and somehow we slog through the grading mire together. We get through it, and my hope is that they learn something in the process.
I always thought education was more about learning anyway. Did I miss something?

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