ISTANBUL – Turkish Daily News

More than 900,000 primary school graduates sat the state high school entrance exam, marking the last time Turkish students will undergo this stressful rite of passage as a new system of high school assessment is set to alter the process for getting into prestigious secondary schools.
"When the starting bell rings, I feel that my life will begin too," said student Başak Taner yesterday, shivering due to stress and excitement while waiting in a classroom for the exam to begin.
Families and students perceive the two-hour High School Entrance Examination, or OKS, as having enormous importance in the lives of students because doing well will mean the ability to enter a good high school, go to a good university and lead prosperous, productive lives. As a result, parental and peer pressure leads to psychological problems among many children.
The majority of the students interviewed complained about the exam, but said they cannot think of any other method of evaluation.
�It would be better if we could enter a good high school without taking any exam. However, there is no alternative to assess students' education levels but the exam,� said Bilge Kaan Savcı, 14, while waiting for the exam to begin in the garden of Lütfi Banat Secondary School in Istanbul.
The exam stress has a negative effect on many students. �I was so stressed that I had an intestinal infection before the exam,� said Kenan Ersal. Another student, Onur Efe, said he had a stomachache minutes before the exam due to stress. �My mom put pressure on me. She says I can play only after the exam,� said Efe.
There were protests in Ankara, Istanbul and the Mediterranean province of Mersin Saturday against both the OKS and the University Entrance Exam, or ÖSS. At the protest in Istanbul's Kadıköy district, protesters called for an end to all such comprehensive exams, which assess students based on a single two or three-hour multiple choice test.
Protesters in Ankara shouted slogans such as, �ÖSS is an unfair system!� �The family, environment and school pressure makes our lives miserable!� and �The best time of our lives is wasted in our rooms studying for the entrance exams!�
The position of the Education Ministry on the matter is not that different from that of the students. In a statement on its Web site, the ministry commented, �OKS itself has been the aim instead of being the means to prepare the pupils for life and a higher educational institution.� The statement further explained why the system is being replaced, saying the OKS has failed to keep up with the changing educational system since 2004.

New high school entrance system:
The new system will resemble the �standard assessment tasks� of the British educational system. Students will be administered three separate exams at the end of each academic year in grades six, seven and eight. Not only these three exams, but also the students' grades throughout the year, will be measured. Behavioral assessment by teachers will also contribute 5 percent of their overall grade.
In another change, the end-of-year tests will include questions on religion and foreign languages.
Students and experts are not particularly happy with the new system either.
�There will be exam stress before each of these three end-of-year tests. Having this pressure once is enough,� said Dehun Kaan, 14, a South Korean student who has lived in Turkey for many years.
Experts also claim that too much pressure is placed on children to succeed in the entrance exams, beginning from a very young age.
Entrance tests are further criticized for not coinciding with the national curriculum. This is why parents are forced to send their children to private courses (dersane) that prepare students specifically for the exams. These private courses have become a multi-billion dollar industry.
Although the Education Ministry promises to change this, experts and parents believe the new system will make the situation with private courses worse. �Both students and teachers are in a rat race to keep up with the curriculum and prepare for the exams,� said Mustafa Kovanlık, Istanbul second bureau head of the educators' union, Eğitim-Sen.
Private courses tend to be very expensive, beginning at around YTL 3,500 a year. A "boutique" course, consisting of only around six students, costs around YTL 6,000 a year.
�We have two daughters; one is preparing for ÖSS and the other for OKS. Both of them are attending a boutique course and it costs around YTL 25,000 for two years,� said Süleyman Köse. He said his family has borrowed money from the bank for their children's educations.
The changes to the OKS system will only increase demand for private courses, according to experts, despite claims to the contrary by ministry officials. �The new system will increase the demand for private tutors and courses. The students will enter their first exam in the sixth year of primary school. That means fourth year primary students will be attending the private courses too,� said Hatice Yılmaz, educational manager of private Final Course.
The high school entrance exam is not compulsory, but 913,000 students out of over 1.2 million primary school graduates participated in the OKS this year. Those who do not want to go to a state high school � graduates of which usually score low on the ÖSS � and want to enter more academically prestigious high school, such as some private high schools, science high schools and vocational high schools, need to take OKS.
The students' final goal is to get a good score on the ÖSS, and they believe the quality of the high school they attend will determine which university they will be able to get in.
�I want to enter Beşiktaş Anadolu High School, so that I can enter a better university,� said Kübra Şakıma, who said he did not sleep the night before the exam.