Post-Covid exam success : results too good to be true?


At the end of a school year turned upside down by the Covid-19, one can only be struck by the importance of the progression of success in exams. The phenomenon affects both secondary and higher education. At the end of the first year of university, the success rates in the baccalaureate are “exceptional”. There is an increase of 10 to 12% compared to 2019.

For the baccalaureate , “the results have never been higher”. Success increased by almost 8%, to 95.7%. For this “Covid option bin” , there was indeed a “bonus effect”. What reading can we do of this amazing progression: should we rejoice, or be saddened? Wouldn’t the exams have been sold out?

We can attempt an answer through three questions. First of all, don’t such pass rates mean that the 2020 exams are unreliable? But how do you assess the reliability of an exam  ? We can “trust” it, essentially, if its validity is important, that is to say if it “measures” what it is supposed to measure.

Lack of reliability?

The first condition for exams to be valid is that they focus well on the knowledge or skills targeted by the courses. From this point of view, there is no reason why the post-Covid evaluators unfortunately, and significantly, proposed, both in the daily evaluation (continuous assessment for the bac), that on occasion ” specific tests (partial university), tests which would not have been centered on the adequate targets.

But validity could also be assessed by surface criteria. The height of the success rate could be one. What is an exam worth that admits (practically) all candidates? Isn’t the diploma then devalued?

However, one may wonder how a low rate would be the indisputable sign of greater validity. What guarantees that the bac of 1967, with 61% of success, was more valid than that of 2017, with its 87.9%? In absolute terms, nothing. We can then say that the bac 2020 was not severe enough. Either it only records the fact that the level goes up! For an examination, the concept of “severity” has only social, not scientific, relevance.

Excess of benevolence?

Another question then arises: would the very particular teaching and evaluation conditions of the year 2020 have pushed the examiners to be excessively benevolent? Tamed by regret at not having been able to teach satisfactorily during the confinement period, and anxious, in a laudable concern for equity, not to harm the candidates, some may assume that the examiners, more or less consciously, would have shows a benevolence which is ultimately to be condemned.

It is clear that, for the bac, the use of continuous evaluation , which is moreover limited to two terms, could prove favorable to a double bias. A general attitude of benevolence (subjects not too difficult, declining requirements) would naturally have accompanied the temptation to give a helping hand to students whom we knew (too) well. So much so that the diploma was granted too generously.

Admittedly, in several cases, generous benevolence was able to turn into unfortunate indulgence, leading to condemnable “arrangements”. But, on the one hand, harmonization procedures, or even adjustment, of the notes, fortunately contributed to correcting the effects of this drift. And above all, on the other hand, should the majority of teacher-examiners be suspected of deplorable laxity? The assumption of widespread complacency would need to be supported by a solid investigation. Especially since it is difficult to see a rather rebellious faculty carrying out massively, and without flinching, very hypothetical ministerial instructions.

Risk of submersive wave?

Can we not then judge these results too good from a third point of view, that of the absorption capacity of the following educational structures? The risk of being overwhelmed by the wave of newcomers is already perceived, at the university. In STAPS, for example, in Caen, there is a fear of being “completely overwhelmed” by the unprecedented increase (33%!) In the number of students in their second year of license, testifies a teacher in Le Monde .

The risk is even more obvious for new graduates. Will there be room for everyone in the superior? In both cases, too generous a success could mean that a large number of individuals who are less likely to succeed the following year are allowed to enter the “market” for further studies. We would only postpone the failure of a year.

However, there is then only one problem, certainly important, but by no means insoluble, of means. And a strong success can in no way be considered as excessive. In the same way that there is no level of success, in itself, optimal, except to consider that such a percentage of individuals is doomed to failure. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to trust those to whom a diploma is awarded, by betting on their future success.

Finally, wouldn’t it be more surprising, in this case, that we were surprised by a high success rate? After all, shouldn’t we always aim for, and hope for, 100% success?

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at the Université Grenoble Alpes