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Are French high school students getting smarter?

Fred Dufour, AFP | French pupil reacts to her baccalaureate results

French pupils are passing the baccalaureate, or the national end-of-high-school exam, in record high numbers. Has France spawned a generation of Einsteins or is there something else behind the brain boom?

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France’s Education Ministry announced this week that a record 624,700 students passed the baccalaureate exam this spring, or 87.9 percent of all of test takers. That figure broke the already historic high set in 2013, which saw a success rate of 86.8 percent.

The numbers are startling when compared to test scores from 15 years ago. In 1999, only 78.3 percent of pupils passed the baccalaureate, meaning that many more of today’s teens are making the grade.

In France, high school students must pass the bac, as the exam is commonly referred to, in order to move on to university studies. Obtaining the distinction “good” or “very good” from test graders is considered an essential step for admission into France’s Grandes écoles, or the most prestigious learning institutions.

On close inspection, this year’s test scores for core subjects – such as French, philosophy and math – actually dipped slightly compared to 2013. Overall results were lifted to a historic high thanks to marked progress in specialised subjects, notably technology.

While it is possible to pick apart bac results by subject, and from year to year, the upward trend in the exam’s success rate over the past decade is incontestable.

Another trend is the spike in very high scores of 19 or 20 on France’s traditional 20-point grading system.

A generation ago, such scores were virtually unheard of – when they surfaced they were treated as a phenomenon bordering on the miraculous. Today they remain rare, but no longer turn students who earn them into local legends.

So, is France witnessing the coming of age of a rare crop of super-intelligent teenagers? Or have educators devised a revolutionary new teaching method poised to take the planet by storm?

‘Not an official policy’

According to French teachers who have experience correcting the exams, baccalaureate grade inflation is behind its rising success rate. It appears to be a ministry-sanctioned move on a massive scale.

Many sceptics have chalked up the high bac results to easier tests, but teachers interviewed by FRANCE 24 rejected that idea. Easier grading is what has changed, they said.

“The tests are just as difficult as before, perhaps even a little bit more difficult because of new time constraints,” said Aurélie (all names have been changed on teachers’ request), who teaches French at a private school in the Paris region. “But when we are handed the tests by ministry officials we are told to be more lenient. To accept certain answers we would not have in the past.”

Julie, another French teacher, but in a public school near the southwestern city of Toulouse, described a similar scenario.

“We are told that it would be good to have a certain average score for the exams we grade. If that average is not met, you are encouraged to review exams again to find a few points here and there,” Julie, who has been teaching for 11 years and has been grading the baccalaureate for eight of those years, said.

“You won’t find those instructions written anywhere,” Julie added. “It’s not an official policy, but there are clear expectations for higher grades.”

Tomas, a math teacher with 15 years of experience in region of Toulouse, thinks French education officials have established an objective to raise test scores nationwide and have lowered grading standards accordingly.

“The tests are not easier, and the kids are not smarter,” Tomas said. “The students are not dumber either. The only difference is that we are asked to allow a large majority of them to pass the exam.”

France’s Education Ministry was asked to comment on the rising bac test results, but had not replied at press time.

A new approach to education?

According to Aurélie, the teacher from the Paris region, the effort to boost scores, particularly in certain subjects like French, are meant to make academic subjects that have become unpopular “more attractive.”

She does not consider widespread grade inflation in France an inherently bad idea. For her it is a welcome break from antiquated educational attitudes, which looked to reprimand pupils at every occasion while offering few positive stimuli.

“In the past educators refused to give pupils a perfect or near-perfect score. The idea was that on principle, no one ever gets 20 out of 20,” Aurelie said, adding that it was important to help boost confidence among her pupils.

Julie said there was no immediate danger to inflating test-takers’ grades, but worried that the move was unfairly setting up youths for greater disappointment down the road.

“When they get to university they will not experience the same leniency,” she warned. “They will be in a more competitive environment, and a lot of them are in for a rude awakening.”

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