German secondary school state exams continue despite opposition

Leaving Cert equivalent should be cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, say students

As Ireland announced the cancellation of the 2020 Leaving Cert last week, German secondary students were in the middle of the Abitur state examination season. But the decision to press ahead with the Abitur while many European neighbours postpone – or cancel entirely – their equivalent examinations has annoyed many students, parents and teachers in Germany, who say the risks outweigh the benefits.

“I find it very stressful, the most stressful part was when we didn’t know whether or not there was going to be writing exams,” said Yara Abdel-Ghany (18), a student at the Nelson Mandela School in western Berlin.

Cormac MacReevy, whose father is from Clontarf in Dublin, said most students in his class had expected the Abitur to be cancelled.

“Two weeks before, they told us they were going to take place,” he said. “For me I think it’s alright but there are students whose parents are in at-risk groups, so this creates a danger, health-wise.”

Education in Germany is overseen by the 16 federal states. Each state sets its own Abitur, largely to a joint standard, and the examinations are staggered from March to the end of May.

After schools closed two months ago, Germany’s education ministers decided on March 25th it was essential that examinations proceed as planned, albeit with additional health measures, to prevent devaluing this year’s Abitur for school leavers.

The ministers wanted these exams by hook or by crook, and have created an unnecessary psychological burden for students

“It is particularly important that [students] are able to plan and, at the same time, their health is our highest priority,” said Dr Stefani Hubig, head of the education minister conference.

Exam-year students were the first to return to lessons when schools reopened from May 4th. New hygiene rules include regular hand-washing with soap and water and exams in well-aired classrooms rather than larger halls, with small numbers of students, spaced out at least 1.5m apart.

Students across Germany have written open letters protesting against the decision: as well as health concerns, they cite pandemic psychological pressures – from struggles to study to fears over parents who have lost their jobs.

Previous grades

Continuous assessment and project work mean the written Abitur exams count for about 30 per cent of any student’s final mark. According to analyses of previous year’s results, grades fluctuated minimally when the written exam results were added to the previous grade average.

Artemisa Ruiz Bustos, whose daughter is sitting her examinations in the Nelson Mandela School, says health concerns linger over the examinations. “We had two children in the exam class with suspected Covid-19 cases,” she said, “but because they were not in a risk group, they weren’t tested.”

Students at the Nelson Mandela School doing the International Baccalaureate, along with 24,000 others worldwide, were informed on March 23rd that their exams were cancelled.

Germany’s teaching union GEW said it was unhappy with the decision but had no means to instruct its members not to supervise the exams.

It argued the staggered nature of the Abitur examinations – some states are already finished, some have yet to begin – left some students at a disadvantage with a longer period without regular schooling.

“The ministers wanted these exams by hook or by crook, and have created an unnecessary psychological burden for students,” said Ulf Rödde, a GEW spokesman. “The decision betrays their narrow ideological view of education, not as a learning process for children, but one focused on exams.”

That echoes the views of many at Berlin’s Nelson Mandela School, said Paola Aliverti, of the school parents’ committee: “I think it has to do more with the German love for the piece of paper than any sense of responsibility for students and their future.”