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Academic Scramble Puts Polish Youth in Exam Hell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dominika Wieclawska, 14, convinced she had done poorly on the most important test of her life, fought back her disappointment as she emerged from Witkacy High School, one of Warsaw’s best.

“I didn’t know the answers,” she lamented, explaining that she had been able to respond to just three of five questions on a standardized two-hour math test that was only part of her entrance exam ordeal.

While most American children are enjoying summer vacation, Polish eighth-graders are in the midst of exam hell: a new, fearfully intense competition to enter good high schools.

The collapse of communism, sweeping social change, strong economic growth and the belated effects of an early 1980s baby boom have triggered a frantic scramble among these teenagers to get ahead now in the new world of global capitalism.

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Gone forever are the days when steelworkers and coal miners stood at the pinnacle of the work world, pulling down salaries and perks far superior to those of the typical college graduate.

“The situation was totally different then. I know from what my mom has told me that there was no such frenzy, no such madness about schools,” said Agnieszka Zyla, 15, who has been studying hard for months in hopes of getting into a high school that will give her extra training either in economics and foreign languages or in computers.

Today’s eighth-graders were born during the darkest days of political repression, when the government tried to crush the Solidarity movement that led to the ultimately successful fight for democracy. Indeed, the universal view here is that the baby boom was born of frustration, boredom and lack of alternative entertainments or satisfying work opportunities under martial law.

But now, Poland, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary, is joining the European mainstream. These countries are due to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April, firmly anchoring them in the West. European Union membership could follow.

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New Opportunities Beckon the Brightest

Poland, especially, is booming. Since 1993, the Polish economy has grown by almost 6% a year on average. A glorious array of new opportunities beckons the brightest of today’s students.

“There is much talk of the European Union,” said Jolanta Lipszyc, principal of Witkacy High School. “You have to finish a good high school, a good university, learn languages, and this leads you to very high status, both professionally and in terms of money.”

Before the 1989 collapse of communism here, “it was very popular for kids to go to the vocational schools,” said Wlodzimierz Paszynski, superintendent of schools for the Warsaw region. “Graduates of vocational schools got quite good jobs and good pay.”

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But Paszynski ridiculed the old system as one in which “if you went to a vocational high school and learned how to turn three screws in one direction, you knew that’s what you would do your whole career: turn those three screws in that direction. Or, if something changed, you would turn those three screws in the other direction.”

Twenty years ago, the future was assured for a graduate of a car repair school, who would automatically be assigned to a mechanic’s shop or auto-parts factory.

“There were no parts for the cars,” Paszynski explained. “So what was really important for that guy was he had access to parts that other people couldn’t get. It was a wonderful thing to have a job . . . and be able to steal parts and repair cars in your backyard.”

Under communism, only about 30% of students graduated from the high schools that lead to university studies, Paszynski said. Now the ratio between such high schools and vocational schools is reversed, with nearly 75% of students in the Warsaw region going to academic high schools.

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In a survey this spring by the major Polish polling firm OBOP, education was rated as the most important children’s issue--ahead of health and a good general upbringing.

Martial Law Blamed for Baby Boom

Poland is quickly expanding the number of academic high schools, but not fast enough. “We are at the peak of the baby boom,” Paszynski said. “That comes from martial law. At that time, that was one thing that was generally available--making children. That’s what we’re dealing with now.”

University admissions have always been selective, but at that level there can be second chances, the students are older and the options more numerous. For eighth-graders, this is the time of decision, with no chance to try again next year.

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Students who did well enough on the Polish-language and math tests, given nationwide on two consecutive days last month, typically moved on to individual oral exams in front of teachers from their target school. Results of the battery of tests will be posted today.

Those who pass a minimum threshold but fail to get into the school of their choice will be assigned to other, less popular schools. Students who cannot get into any public high school can still go to a vocational school. For those with enough money, private high schools--which are growing rapidly in number and vary widely in quality--offer another option.

Now the Pay Is Better Than for a Laborer

With so much at stake, eighth-graders have been feeling intensifying pressure ever since the school year started last fall.

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“It’s much more important now to get into a good school, because 15 years ago, whatever school you graduated from, you had to work for the state and the pay was all about the same,” Michal Pekala, 14, said after taking two days of written tests for Witkacy High, where 140 candidates applied for 50 places. “Now if somebody gets a good job in a private company and has a responsible position, the pay is much better than for a laborer.”

Agnieszka--the girl hoping to focus in high school on computers or economics and foreign languages--said she sometimes got anxious preparing for the tests.

“If there was a math exercise and there was an element I didn’t know how to do, I’d suddenly get into a panic,” she said. “Or if I was choosing schools, and a lot of kids wanted to get into the same school I wanted, I’d go into a panic.”

Some kids are more scared than they need to be. Judging from Polish media reports on the math exam, students like Dominika--the one who was so upset about not knowing how to answer two of the five exercises--may have done better than they realized. Students generally found that test fiendishly difficult, and the last question was a kind of extra-credit item meant to be too hard for all but the very best.

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Kasia Kornatowska, 14, who is trying to get into Dabrowski High School, another of Warsaw’s best, said she checked with friends after the math test and learned that “there were many kids who couldn’t answer any questions, some solved two, and very few could answer three or four. . . . A lot of kids were crying.”

Many eighth-graders also took tests this spring for private high schools. A few such schools--mainly Catholic--existed even during the Communist era, but the vast majority have emerged since 1989. Some students who won entry to a good private school made that their first pick and thus escaped last week’s nationwide testing.

For the majority of students whose fates still hung in the balance, oral exams are a final hurdle that can present unexpected challenges.

For example, the disciplined memorization typical of traditional Polish schools, which may help in math study, can sometimes backfire in these quasi-interviews.

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“We’re looking for students who have curiosity about the world, students who question things, who don’t believe everything they’re told,” said Lipszyc, the Witkacy High principal. “Rebels. Rebellious children in the sense they do things on their own, without needing to be told, ‘Do this, do that.’ ”

However tough the tests have been on students, parents often have worried even more.

Some parents took vacations to tutor their children, while many more sent their kids to private Saturday schools in Polish and math. Some took long walks with their eighth-grader, lecturing on current events, the theater or other subjects that can come up in oral exams.

“It’s actually the parents who are much more nervous and upset than the students themselves,” Dominika’s mother, Anna Wieclawska, 30, said as she waited outside the school where her daughter was being tested. “This doesn’t just apply to me. I know this is the case with the parents of many of my daughter’s friends. A lot of us were absolutely terrified that the students were not studying as much as we thought they should.”

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Ela Kasprzycka of The Times’ Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.


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