Rites of Passage: Italian School Exams

The Italian education system is big on big exams. At the end of elementary, middle, and high school, everyone has to take an exam, with both written and oral components. When it came time for Ross’ 5th grade exam, I was terrified on her behalf; the teachers had made such a big deal of it, saying months ahead of time: “This will be on the exam, you have to start studying now.”

So I assumed that her exam results would be of interest to the middle school she’d be going on to, and asked the teachers when I should come to collect a report.

The teachers seemed surprised. “You don’t have to pick up the results.”

“Doesn’t the new school need to see them?”

“No.”

“Then who does see them?”

“No one. We put them in a file, and no one ever looks at them again.”

I was dumbfounded. I tried asking some other parents: if no one ever looks at the results, what is the point of this exam, and why does everyone make such a fuss about it?

“It’s traditional, a rite of passage,” was the explanation.

Now Ross is finishing 8th grade, and we’re up against another exam. This time it’s four days of written tests (Italian – an essay, math – ouch, English – a doddle, and French), followed (after ten more days to study) by a twenty-minute oral, in which questions may be asked covering anything she’s studied over the year. They tell me the oral is a test of maturity and presence as much as actual knowledge; if so, Ross should pass with flying colors!

Until a few years ago, schooling was compulsory only until age 14, and I suppose the middle school exam determined what sort of high school you would go to (if any). The type of high school you attended would in turn determine whether you would go on to university, and what sort of course you could do there. Things have loosened up now, so the exact type of high school diploma does not force your university choice (though some types of high school prepare students for university better than others).

So it seems likely that the middle school exam is no longer as important as it was, and again I’m wondering: what’s the point?

I’m foreigner: I ask questions like that. Most Italians wouldn’t. When we were scouting new middle schools last year (having decided that the school Ross had attended for 6th and 7th grade was not right for her), I asked one of the principals about this exam. Her reply was refreshingly honest: “It will probably disappear in a few years, it’s practically meaningless now.” Of course that’s not much comfort to the kids who still have to do this meaningless yet gruelling exam.

But, if you ask the parents, it’s another rite of passage that they all went through, and think their kids should, too. Sometimes I get very frustrated with the Italian attitude that things should continue as they are, simply because they’ve always been that way… (This makes a lot of sense in some fields, such as food and wine, but not in education!)

At any rate, Ross seems to be getting through it without too much agony, and only moderate maternal nagging to study (I’m so busy moving that I’ve hardly been home – I have to nag by cellphone). And we can all look forward to doing it again at the end of high school (which is five years, by the way), when she faces the maturita‘.


Feb 9, 2004

The esame della quinta (elementary school-leaving exam) has been abolished by recent reforms introduced by Education Minister Letizia Moratti. No one mourns it.

2 thoughts on “Rites of Passage: Italian School Exams

  1. chris

    Hi, just found your website I see that this was back in 2003 LOL, 10 years ago..
    so what happened to Ross? how did he get along in middle school and of course high school?
    wow guess now he is finishing up university in Italy too..

    do you have any updates and advise for others following 10 years behind Ross?

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