World News

Thousands of German Students Protest ‘Unfair’ English Exam

Posted May 5, 2018 3:05 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — Complaining that your final school exams are too tough is a rite of passage — almost a tradition.

But German students in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg who hunkered down in April to take pivotal final secondary-school exams have gone a step further in their protests about the English-language portion of the test, which they said was absurd, with obscure and outdated references.

Nearly 36,000 people — over 2,000 more than the number of students who took the exam, called the Abitur — have signed an online petition demanding that officials adapt the scoring system in light of what they describe as “unfair” questions, even before the results have been released.

The test required the students to show comprehension of current issues like Britain’s pending exit from the European Union, or Brexit, and to comment on two contrasting cartoons about the process, titled “Project Fantasy” and “The Realities.”

One focus of their objections was a reading comprehension section that used text from “Call It Sleep,” a critically acclaimed 1934 novel by American writer Henry Roth, which the students said was rife with archaic vocabulary. Their petition highlighted this passage as difficult to comprehend:

“Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light — the blackened hilt of a broken sword. Liberty.”

Those words are not lyrics from a song by a heavy metal band like Black Sabbath, but a reference to the Statue of Liberty.

The Abitur exams were created from a national pool of questions and distributed by the Education Ministry in Baden-Württemberg. The exam is Germany’s equivalent to the United Kingdom’s A-levels or France’s baccalaureate — the final hurdle for students leaving secondary school for university, a series of written and oral tests worth roughly one-third of their school-leaving grade.

The resulting grades are used for a system known as “numerus clausus” that rations admission to popular university programs. Those who wish to study a high-demand subject like medicine but fail to meet a required minimum score may be required to wait up to seven years for a place.

“The Abitur grades are the single most important selecting factor for getting into university,” said Rainer Bölling, an education expert who wrote a book on the history of the Abitur.

Bölling suggested that the test, which holds an important place in German culture, was becoming easier, as a bigger proportion of young people try to get into university. In 1960, 7 percent of school leavers took the test; in 2000, it was 37.2 percent; and in 2015, it was 53 percent, according to official figures.

Because of the Abitur’s importance to students’ future careers, however, the protest and petition had a tinge of panic and frustration.

The petition, 991 words long and divided into four points, was cast as an open letter by the test sitters to the ministry of culture, youth and sports in Baden-Württemberg. But many others signed it out of solidarity. One commenter, A.K. Mohan, declared: “I’m signing because I, too, will soon be doing my Abitur.”

An independent expert panel commissioned by the state to evaluate the exam after the petition gathered steam found it to be of reasonable difficulty, and warned students to wait to see their marks, which will be released on June 18.

“There is no need to worry,” Susanne Eisenmann, the state minister responsible for secondary education, said in a statement. “I advise peace and serenity.” One of the region’s top linguists, Bernd Saur, also had advice for the students, according to the BBC: “I urge the pupils to await their results — nobody’s going to get a whacking.”

Recently, Germans have taken to deploying online petitions to express anger and force officials to justify seemingly routine practices.

Last month, the city of Hanover faced a crises when nearly 300,000 people signed an online petition to save a dog that had killed two people. Petitioners blamed the dog’s surroundings, not the animal itself, for the deaths. The city put down the dog, but faced protests and media scrutiny partly resulting from the petition.

Last year, a dispute about another English exam, in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, led to a revision after an online petition. Students had complained that the test included a poor recording of a “mumbling” speech by Prince Harry, the BBC said.

Other students taking this year’s Abitur apparently did not run into the same issues as those in Baden-Württemberg. Students in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern were tested on similar passages, but apparently did not complain publicly.

Recently, however, in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, the math test portion of the Abitur had to be exchanged — and in some places delayed. Burglars had broken into the school safe, where they might have had access to the exam.