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Dutch grades

The Dutch have a strange relationship to grades. Formally grades range from 0 to 10. Grade 0 often means "not participated", so 1 is usually the worst and 10 the best grade. In practice, however, the Dutch only use grades 4 to 9. Some documents even say 5 to 8.

10 is the perfect grade. This can only be given to a perfect person, i.e. God. If a teacher gave a 9 this would indicate that the student does as well as him-/herself. So there seems to be a kind glassen ceiling as it is difficult to get above 8.

Many Dutch students seem to accept these rules. And there is this expression of a "zesjescultuur" (grade 6 culture) which says that just pass is perfect. A student once told me that when she comes home with a 7.5 her father looks worried. "Girl, you are studying too hard."

Another nice example I saw a year ago in the newspaper. In a cup competition the second-tier Maastricht soccer team crushed their opponent who plays in the highest Dutch league (eredivisie). The newspaper was full of superlatives as for example: "... the opponent was chanceless ..." or "... by far the best performance since long ...". However when it came to grading the team, the author put down a generous 8. Sometimes these reports also honour a player who distinguished himself by playing much better than the rest of the team, a so-called "uitblinker". At this particular date there was also an uitblinker. What grade did he get? Yes, a 7.5.

The most extreme opposite I have seen from Italy. In an application a student had 31 points out of 30 for several courses. This is what you need if 30 out of 30 is so common that it does not give much information anymore.

Needless to say that this cultural difference leads to problems. Some of our students from abroad are used to much higher grades in their home countries. Moreover when they go back with their seemingly bad grades from the Netherlands, they have to compete against their peers who stayed at home and did much better (on paper).

What can be done to change this culture? Maybe we can introduce a rule, that a good Dutchman should not only beget a child, plant a tree, and write a book, but once in his lifetime he should also give the grade 10. Whether this helps, I do not know. I am afraid that I am already adapting to the Dutch style. When I moved to the Netherlands, I was giving 10s for partial grades in some cases. Nowadays I am much more hesitant. Questions like "Was this performance really perfect?" pop up.

Every now and then I do not have to think so much. Then the delivered work is simply perfect. A few years ago for example I had a thesis for which even the second examiner, a colleague who was brought up in the good old Dutch grading tradition acknowledged with a some desperation in his voice: "I was searching for reasons NOT to give a 10, but I couldn't find any." And just to pre-empt the argument that the author might have been God: after her thesis she started to work for Deutsche Telekom, something God never would do.

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