'Bac' pass row erupts

July 28, 1995

This year's pass rate in the French school-leaving baccalaureat examination reached a record 75 per cent. But the result has been greeted with some scepticism about standards and even rumours that the ministry of education asked examiners to be lenient.

That has been flatly denied by education minister Francois Bayrou who said that, on the contrary, the examination had been made "voluntarily more difficult in order to give it greater value".

The "bac" serves as a passport to higher education for nearly half a million successful candidates this year.

The education ministry forecasts that about half the 480,000 successful candidates will opt for university courses and almost all will choose some form of higher education.

The university institutes of technology continue to come under heavy demand. While there is a drop in numbers in the lycee-based preparatory classes for the grandes ecoles, the trend is the reverse in the lycee-based science and technology diploma classes.

Another record was broken with the number of commendations, earned by nearly a third of those who passed the "general" - academic - baccalaureat.

Mr Bayrou hailed the rise in commendations as "proof that standards are constantly improving".

But the real surprise this year was not what now appears to be an inevitable, slow but steady annual improvement in the pass rate.

The true novelty was a far more sudden rise in passes for the technical baccalaureat that took it from 70 per cent to 75 per cent ahead of the general "bac".

This year's examinations were the first to follow a reorganisation of subject matters, which gives greater weight to core subjects and attempts to break the dominance of mathematics as the key measure of achievement.

Mr Bayrou has announced that the examinations will be simplified next summer. There has been growing pressure for continuous assessment and project work to count towards the results.

However, such innovations are not likely to appear in the near future. Instead, one of the sacred cows of the baccalaureat - examination essays - will probably be modified.

Candidates would write fewer essays and secondary and optional subjects might be subject to fewer examinations or be assessed earlier in the year.

Such changes are likely to lead to renewed accusations that the "bac" is being "devalued". Underlying such criticism are fears that the mass acquisition of the bac make it virtually worthless on the job market and that mass entry into higher education lowers standards there.

Just eight years ago, 33 per cent of all youngsters got the baccalaureat compared to 62.6 per cent this year. The government is organising national discussions on the issue of just what type of higher education provision is needed for this new "clientele".

Resulting proposals for the reform of the first two years of higher education will then be put to the nation in a referendum.

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