Friday, July 31, 2009


Education is one of those things that sort of defines a culture, don’t you think? It’s one of the equalizers – we all go through it, for differing length of time and with different goals – but nonetheless everyone spends a decade or so in school. On the flip side however, is the fact that between different cultures educational experiences can be a polarizing element. Despite the fact that a US graduate, be it from high school or college, has more or less learned the same things (barring local histories and languages) as a Spanish graduate the way they went about learning those things, and more specifically the way they were evaluated on the same, has much less in common.

Except among the very top tier of students in a particular school, the competition for class rankings and high grade point averages simply doesn’t exist in Spain. Instead the kids just want to get by. This is particularly noticeable at the university level where not only is it common to fail multiple subjects throughout one’s college career, but where doing so is not really something to be ashamed of. Instead, it is a part of life. The university system (and correct me if I’m wrong primary and secondary curriculums as well) is set up specifically for that eventuality. It starts out as in the States – final exams after each of two semesters – but then Spain throws in a 3rd option. Exams in September, expressly designed for the student who didn’t manage to pass the earlier exams. And it’s not much more uncommon for people to fail (or simply not show up to) that 3rd exam, leaving the subject and final exam for the following year(s).

By the way, the limit for a passing grade is a 5/10 here – not a 6 (or 60% - D) like in the States.

People here are shocked when I tell them that in the States (in my experience at least) not only do you not get multiple chances at the same exam (without retaking the course), but that at some schools a low passing grade is only accepted a limited number of times. (Duke, for example, allows just two D’s over your 4-year course. After that, a D is like an F – no course credit at all.) In other words “failing” in the States is a much bigger deal than here in Spain. Here at least you get another chance at it, and taking advantage of that opportunity is the norm, not the exception. I’ve heard that the standard length of time spent getting a technical engineering degree, a three-year curriculum, is in fact no less than five years. The five-year “superior” engineering degree typically takes around seven or eight.

All of this comes back to my wondering if setting the bar “low” leads to people being more likely to fail. One of my favorite sayings is, “Reach for the moon. Even if you fail you’ll end up among the stars.” In other words, if you aim for a C, or a 7 on the Spanish scale, if you fall short you still manage to pass. Putting an emphasis on passing “well” perhaps encourages people more than just emphasizing the pass. After all, if you study just well enough to pass and then the exam throws you a curve ball where are you left?

There was an article published recently in one of the free newspapers that I can pick up on my way into work. They recently released the results of the grade level proficiency tests for the “sophomores,” a relatively new test for that particular grade – this was just the 2nd year – designed to evaluate overall proficiency in mathematics and language arts. The average score was 4,59 out of 10. A failing score. And the test revealed that only 32,7% of the high school students received a passing score in mathematics. In language arts they fared better – 68,9% passed that one. Let’s compare that the national average in the States – for the 2007 school year, in mathematics, 70% of 8th graders (no data for higher courses) received a “basic” or better rating – the benchmark that indicates the student scored at least at the minimum level for his grade. Similarly, in reading 73% reached that mark and in writing 87% managed to do the system proud. (Also keep in mind that the Spanish averages are for all students while the US averages are strictly the public schools. The argument exists that the US averages would be higher if they included private prep schools…)

Clearly this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Perhaps the curriculum is more rigorous in Spain. Perhaps a portion of those US “basics” fall below a “passing” score. Regardless, the US system considers that a significantly larger portion of its students meet the established minimum level than the equivalent Spanish system.

And it all goes back to the point of my post. Following incredibly simplified logic - with such disparate educational evaluation systems, primarily the acceptability of “failing” and/or just “passing” here in Spain, can you not argue that the emphasis on good grades leads to better results? People try harder because they want to do well, not just well enough. And if something goes wrong, they frequently still end up passing…

1 comment:

santcugat said...

I was amazed at the dropout rate here in Spain. I think the repeating grades has something to do with it, since this behavior seems to start even in middle school.

I suppose if Spaniards cared as much about not failing school, as, say not being shabbily dressed, things might improve.