Posted by: Andy | March 28, 2011

Exam Culture

[update on April 4: A Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News and Economics, reported on a scandal involving the exam I talk about below. Read here]

When I woke up yesterday morning, my iPod and computer had automatically “sprung ahead” as the saying goes.  If you’re in the US, you’re probably thinking, “why was it two weeks late?”  If you’re in Europe, you’re probably thinking, “yeah, so did mine, no worries.”  If you’re in Turkey, you’re probably thinking, “yeah, so did mine, I had to double-check again and again to make sure I had the right time.”

So what happened here?  Europe now switches to Daylight’s Saving Time two weeks after the United States (though, apparently, the Brits call it a switch to “British SummerTime” or BST).  Turkey falls in line with Europe and does this on Saturday night/Sunday morning.  This year however it was postponed by a day.  Why?  Because 1.5 million students took their university entrance exams yesterday morning and the powers that be didn’t want to have late students, any confusion about when the exam was or less sleep for the students.

I thought this was a bit ridiculous.  As one of my friends said, “Yeah come on people it’s the ‘University Entrance Exam’ . . . .you can’t possibly expect them to also tell time.”

True, but we’re talking about high school students here.  They’re not setting their own alarms.  They’re relying on their mothers to wake them up.  At least that’s what I did.  I also relied on my mother to remind me to change my clocks when time changes came.  I wrote about it here almost a year and a half ago.

It should also be noted that Turkey isn’t the only country that adjusts the semi-annual one hour shifts.  Chile delayed their switch by three weeks this year.  Fiji advanced the switch three weeks.  Russia and Belarus are planning on never switching back to standard time (or winter time).  They’re going to stay on daylight time (or summer time) permanently.  Now that is a good idea.

I wish there were some statistics available on percentages of people who are late because of the time shift.  I wonder which country would be the worst at remembering.

One must also understand (as I know my friend does) that this university entrance exam might be the most important event in a Turkish person’s first 20 years of life.

Day 23 - Exam hall (photo by Jack Hynes)

Day 23 - Exam hall (photo by Jack Hynes)

The education system here does not allow for the freedom of choice that the American system does.  I told my students yesterday that most American college students change their major (department, for those Turks who are reading) more than once.  I have read statistics saying the average student changes majors seven times, three times, nine times.  I’m not sure what the most recent research has found, but either way, changing departments even three times is unthinkable here.

If my students have explained the system correctly, what happens is as follows.  Students fill out paper work, saying which areas they’d like to study.  If their exam scores are high enough, they can study their first choice.  Often this is medicine, law or engineering (of some sort).  If it isn’t high enough, they’re resigned to study other topics such as finance, economics, pharmacy or teaching.  And if they have a poor score, they’re asked to study things like Hittite history.  No joke, I once met a student who wanted to be a journalist, but her scores weren’t high enough on this university entrance exam so she chose Hittite history.  Now nothing against journalists, I think it is a fine profession and one I would personally enjoy, but I don’t think one needs a higher score on a standardized test to study journalism than Hittite history.

Similar to the US, your score also determines which universities you can attend.  I probably couldn’t have attended Stanford or Princeton with my ACT score.  Likewise, a high score gets students into the premier schools here.

The difference is with my ACT score, I could have studied law or medicine or anything I wanted to at hundreds of schools.  Here, choices are much more limited and much more controlled.  Only a certain number of people can study medicine, law or journalism in a given year.

As you can imagine, this puts an amount of pressure on students, age 17 or 18 that is heavier than 17 or 18 year olds should be expected to handle.  The course of life is largely set for individuals in this exam.  A good score can mean a good future, or at least a future one thinks they’d prefer as a teenager.  A poor score can mean a poor future, or at least one with little room for change.

It’s interesting to me that in a culture where people grow up a bit slower than in the states this much pressure is put upon teenagers.  In the states, adulthood seems to start by at least 22 if not earlier.  Here, it may be delayed until the late 20s, possibly even early 30s.  If a student graduates from college at 22 and can’t find a job.  They live with their parents and well, don’t grow up.  It’s simply part of the culture to live with one’s parents until marriage and marriage (in the cities) doesn’t usually occur until ages 27 to 35.

In the end, the emphasis upon this exam produces a trickle down effect into the very fabric of society.  There are more dershanes (special schools) than I can count in Ankara.  A student’s life exists every single day of the week, waking up, going to school, going to a different school, going home, doing homework, chatting on Facebook and going to sleep.  Stephanie and I once saw a t-shirt at the mall that said “Bermuda triangle” and it listed three places: home, school, dershane.

The majority of students here go to school seven days a week.  Monday through Friday in normal school, sometimes going to a dershane in the late afternoons or evenings.  On weekends, most students have an English course and another dershane course, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, often making for seven or eight hours of school…on a weekend!  I can’t even imagine how much money the average high schooler’s parents spend on education.  A month of English lessons often costs 200-300 TL ($150-200).  I have no idea what a dershane for math or science might cost, but I’d assume a similar price.  And students are in these courses 9-10 months a year for at least four years.

I don’t know a single Turkish person who hasn’t told me “The education system here is broken.”

I never took an ACT prep course.  I maybe should have.  My little sister did and it was set up by her public high school, taught by a volunteer teacher and cost no money.  Also, I think she only had about 30 hours of lessons.

Does all this time in a classroom help?  Does it even produce results?  What are Turkish students learning in their normal school settings that they need to spend countless hours outside their normal classroom in another classroom?

The Ministry of Education in Turkey is noticing that there are some problems.  Stephanie shared this article with me last night.  It announces plans to bring 40,000 foreign teachers to Turkey.  A lot of people are not happy with this announcement, with cause considering there are approximately 400,000 teachers in Turkey looking for work.

It seems to me, the Ministry of Education is looking to improve normal schools so that these dershanes are not necessities for every single student in the country.  I think that is a fair assessment.  The sad thing is, dershanes employ a considerable amount of people and if people stop going to them, that number of 400,000 teachers looking for work will only go up.

Will parents stop sending their children to these special schools?  I don’t think so.  Until the system changes enough that this university entrance exam is less important for deciding a student’s future, parents will continue to search for a competitive edge for their children.

The exam is too important.  Seriously, a country of nearly 80 million people delayed daylight savings time just to accommodate those taking this exam.


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