External exams need to signal the level of a student's achievement, not just whether the exam was passed. Dutch external exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 10. Excellence on the Baccalaureat exams results in the award of a Mention Tres Bien, a Mention Bien, or an Mention Assez Bien. Once information on performance levels becomes available, employers and institutions of higher education will tend to base their selection decisions on it. Graduates with the strongest exam results have options not available to those with weak results, and the outcome is a system of graduated rewards. When the variance of achievement is high, incentives for effort are stronger on average under a graduated rewards system than under a single large reward attached to achieving a fixed standard (Kang, 1985).

The English GCSE and Scottish "Lowers" Examinations are taken by 90 percent of 16 year olds. As recommended by Kang's model, they generate substantial and graduated rewards for learning what appears on the exams. Indeed, the rewards for doing particularly well on these external exams appear to be larger than those in the Netherlands. 11 Why then are English and Scottish 13 year olds assigned less homework than their American and Dutch counterparts? Why is their achievement in mathematics and science at age 13 significantly lower than in the Netherlands? As the time for the exam approaches in Britain, teacher demands and student effort increase substantially. At age 13, however, standards are low. Why do the backwash effects of the secondary school graduation exams extend further back in the pupil's schooling in the Netherlands and France than in Britain?

Redoublement as Mastery Learning and an Incentive to Study

One explanation for low British standards for 10 to 13 year olds is the lack of immediate rewards for doing well in classes. The external exams are three to six years away. Students are promoted to the next grade no matter how well they do in the previous grade. Those who fall behind inevitably slow the pace of the class in succeeding years. Primary school teachers do not feel accountable for how well students do on exams taken after four years of attendance at a secondary school. Secondary schools tend to be large, and the teachers who handle the first-year students lack a sense of accountability for performance on exams that are more than three years in the future.


In the United Kingdom, access to sixth form programs preparing for university, various vocational technical programs, and employment depend on a student's performance on the GCSE and Scottish lowers. Since A-level results are not available at the time initial university admission decisions are made, GCSE results influence which university and which field of study a student is admitted to. In the Netherlands the passing standard is high, but exceeding it by a large margin generates few rewards because the external exam results are only part of the student's overall grade, and access to the most popular university fields of study is on a first-come/first-served basis. In addition, there is much less variation in the quality and reputation of Dutch universities than of British universities.

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