Zesjescultuur bij student en instelling

Nieuws | de redactie
6 december 2010 | Hoe leg je 'een zesjescultuur' uit buiten Nederland? En hoe weet je of hij wel bestaat? Wes Holleman helpt met de explicatie. En brengt daarin 13 factoren in beeld, die verklaren waarom de student doet wat zij doet: "In an economic sense, a Dutch mark beyond 6 has no surplus value. A mark beyond 6 is meant as a positive incentive, but it adds no extra value to one's educational career."

Can you please define and explain the so-called six-minusculture (‘zesjescultuur’) in Dutch education? Wes Hollemantakes up this challenge. Dutch teachers, governors and politicianscontend that too many students have no ambition at all. Studentsare said to be satisfied when they barely pass their tests andexams, in stead of trying to get high marks. They are supposed tobe tainted with a calculating six-minus mentality. 

In this essay Holleman will indicate thirteen structuralfactors which cause high marks to be unattractive, or evenunfeasable, for students in Dutch secondaryeducation. 

1. High marks only reflect teachersatisfaction

In Holland student performance is graded on a ten-point scale,but only the six-mark has some calibrated meaning. It indicatesthat the student has performed satisfactorily. The student hassatisfied the minimum requirements set by the teacher. The teacheris satisfied with the performance. What more might the teacherwish? The marks from seven up to ten indicate that the teacher ismore than satisfied. But students can only guess about the criteriaused by the teacher. On what quality dimensions the surpluslearning outcomes are being assessed? Or is the learningprocess (diligence, attention, obedience) being assessedand rewarded as well? Why bother getting high marks when theirmeaning is quite unclear: just to please the teacher?

The arbitrariness involved in high marks is well illustrated bythe ten-mark. If a student has fully reached the learning goals setby the teacher, is there any guarantee that he or she will earn aten-mark? If so, why hasn’t the teacher specified and disclosedthose learning goals? Or is there some truth in the Dutch saying’ten is for the master’, which suggests that no student will everreceive a ten-mark, as it is reserved for the expert teacher whorocks himself in self-esteem. 

2. High marks do not yield social status

As the criteria for assigning higher marks are very ambiguous,they don’t yield social status within the peer group. Studentsgetting higher marks tend to be seen as eager beavers, toadies oreven teacher’s pets. High marks do not fit into the social valuesshared within the peer group. In that regard some sort of ‘gradingon the curve’ might be preferred, as it would meet the student’sdesire to excel in comparison with peers.

In such a grading system, the students performing at or beyondthe six-mark would be ranked into fixed percentile classes: forexample the top 10% get a ten-mark, the next 15% a nine-mark, thenext 20% an eight-mark, the following 25% a seven-mark and the last30% a six-mark. So, any student performing 6 or beyond, would knowhow well he (or she) has performed when compared with hispeers. 

3. Essentially, Dutch teachers use a dichotomous scale:Pass or Fail

Dutch teachers use a ten-point scale, but essentially it is atwo-point scale: Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory? That is: Pass orFail. Marks below 6 (or six-minus) signify that the student hasperformed unsatisfactorily. He (she) has failed the test.

By low marks he is informed that he should perform better nexttime, or even that he must take the same test another time to showthat, in the meantime, he has reached the required minimum level.So, the student has no need to earn marks beyond six. A six-mark issufficient for proceeding to the next learning task. You have leaptthe ditch succesfully: the student has managed to reach the otherside of the ditch with dry heels, as we say in Holland.

4. High marks have no surplus value for one’s schoolcareer

An American student who has an average mark (GPA) of D-minus isperforming very badly. He won’t get very far. But a Dutch six-minusstudent is performing satisfactorily: he or she will pass to thenext school year and in the end he or she may pass to university.In an economic sense, a Dutch mark beyond 6 has no surplus value. Amark beyond 6 is meant as a positive incentive, but it adds noextra value to one’s educational career.

5. It is not the marks that count but the school-typeyou are in

At the end of primary school, 11-year old pupils have anation-wide achievement test in Dutch and Arithmatics (theso-called CITO-test):

  • pupils with the best scores can go to the six-year Independent’Gymnasium’ (grammar school with Latin and Greek in the corecurriculum), preparing for university;
  • the somewhat lesser scores go to the six-year VWO-department(with Latin and Greek as optionals), preparing for university aswell;
  • pupils with lower scores go to the five-year HAVO-department,preparing for the professional schools (such as the non-universitypolytechnics);
  • or they go to the four-year pre-vocational VMBO-department(either the ‘high’ theoretical or mixed stream, or any of the two’lower’ streams), preparing for the vocational schools.

So, after primary school pupils try to get admission to aschool-type as high-ranking as possible (eventually via the firsttransition year, which is meant to be a selection and allocationperiod). Once they have been admitted, they try to cling to thatschool-type. If their marks will drop below the 6-level, they riska degradation to a lower-ranking school-type. But higher markswon’t promote them to a higher-ranking school-type.

6. Completion of a high-ranking school-type yieldssocial status

Holland is a class-ridden society. Dutch uppermiddle-class andupper-class want their children to go to the Independent’Gymnasium’ or to the VWO-department (and afterwards to theuniversity), even if they have barely enough talent for such aschool career. They prefer their children to repeat a year, ratherthan to be degraded to HAVO or VMBO.

So, six-minus students may be uppermiddle-class or upper-classstudents who do their utmost to stay in their high-rankingschool-type. In their school class they don’t have a six-minusmentality: they struggle to get Pass-marks in order tosurvive in their social class.

7. High marks have no surplus value, as postsecondaryeducation has no entrance examinations

After the transition from primary to secondary education, thereare no strict entrance examinations. Secondary education concludeswith a final examination and if students pass that exit exam theyare automatically admitted to university or professional school orvocational school (provided that they have passed the requiredsubjects). If they have passed that exam, whatever their marks,they will be admitted to a study career in postsecondary education.Neither during one’s secondary school career nor at this finalexam, there is any need to earn marks beyond 6.

8. Exit exams require every student to meet the SAMEminimum level

Each school-type in secondary education has its own nation-wideexit examination. To a certain extent students can choose their ownsubjects, but the minimum-level to be reached is fixed. If studentsdon’t reach that level, as indicated by six-marks or beyond, theywill fail the exam and they’ll have to resit the whole exam thefollowing year.

It is all or nothing: students who try to achieve high marks insome exam subjects, run the risk of failing the exam (and having toresit all subjects next year!), unless they manage to achievesix-marks in the other exam subjects as well.

9. High-ranking exams require every student to meet thesame HIGH minimum level

In order to make the course sufficiently challenging forhigh-ability students, the pace of instruction (and the level to bereached at the final exam) is attuned to the better students, – sayto the 75th percentile of the ability ranking in a class. Studentsof lesser ability have to work very hard to keep up with theteacher’s pace and they will earn no marks beyond 6 or 7.

So, especially in the higher-ranking schooltypes, the learningclimate is very exacting. This is not only imposed by the Dutchclass society (the highest diplomas should be hard-to-get as theyare an entrance ticket to the intellectual elite and to the highersocial classes), but also by the competing subsystems of tertiaryeducation. The higher-ranking tertiary subsystems set highstandards for their students.

The universities (e.g. the department of chemistry orpharmaceutical sciences) have to set very high standards in orderto exceed the professional schools (e.g. the school for higher labtechnicians). And the professional schools have to set highstandards in order to exceed the diploma requirements of thevocational schools (e.g. the school for pharmacist’sassistants).

10. Students have to survive in a system of continuousselection hinging on the six-mark

As a fixed minimum-level of performance is required at the finalexam, entrance to the intermediate years is restricted. Studentsare not admitted to the next year within their school-type unlessthey have reached the level which is required to start in that nextform. If they have not reached that level, they will have to repeatthe year they are in, or they will be degraded to a lowerschool-type.

The one and only criterion used in this selection process is thesix-mark: Pass or Fail. [In postsecondary education this continuousselection process will go on. The final minimum-level to be reachedis fixed. Having passed the final exam of secondary school,students are free te enter, but here again they study at their ownrisk. They don’t get any assurance that they will succeed. Studentshave to earn at least six-marks to pass the final exam and gettheir diploma.]

11. No restrictions on study duration: students andteachers get demoralized

Getting a Fail is no great loss to one’s study career, as Dutchstudents are allowed to repeat a form. They are allowed to slackoff in one school year and repeat the form in their next schoolyear. So, getting (and giving!) low marks in one school year is noproblem, for the student can take a second chance next year. Thisis a dominant characteristic of the system of secondary andpostsecondary education in the Netherlands: final requirements arefixed and study duration is more or less free.

So, in their mutual study contract, neither the teacher nor thestudent can trust one another. The student is suspected to be lazyor unfit for the school-type he or she is in. And teachers, aswell, may loose their professional devotion and may trade thesupportive teacher’s role for the harsh selector’s role. As theycannot count on the diligence and good will of each other, theyboth tend to get demoralized. Both students and teachers lack thecommon framework provided by Anglosaxon systems: try to attain anachievement level as high as possible within a fixed studyduration.

12. High marks have no surplus value, as there are noadvanced or honours courses

High-achievers have no prospect of being placed into advancedcourses or honours courses within their school-type. So high marksare not being rewarded in any way. Every student within theschool-type follows the same track. Gifted students cannot earn theprivilege to excel in a more challenging learning environment.

13. Upward mobile students: the PeterPrinciple

When students have graduated in a lower-ranking schooltype, theyare allowed to move on into a higher-ranking schooltype (this holdsfor secondary as well as postsecondary curricula). That may be anincentive to try and get high marks in lower-ranking schooltypes.Yet as a consequence, the higher-ranking school-types have to copewith the Peter Principle: in a hierarchical organizationeverybody tends to be promoted until he has reached his level ofincompetence.

This rule fully applies to the hierarchical structure of Dutcheducation. Every student tries to move up to the school-type inwhich he or she is bound to fail. Or at best: upward mobilestudents try to attain the school-type in which they can onlyachieve six-minus marks.


The Dutch system does not promote high marks, but itpromotes students to enter and complete high-rankingschool-types and produce satisfactory marks there. Itdoes not promote, however, that each student achieves up to his orher full potential and it certainly does not make the top 10% ofstudents achieve their full potential. It will take great effort torepair this drawback of the Dutch educational system. In the tablebelow I suggest some solutions to be considered within theconstraints set by the Dutch system.

Dr. J.W. Holleman, sociologist, is an active edublogger. Anearlier version of this essay was published on his website.

re 1, 2: Inform students about the qualitylevel of their performance in four different dimensions:

  • does my performance meet the minimum-level required by theteacher (Pass or Fail)?
  • what is the rank of my performance as compared with my peers(the percentile class I am in)?
  • what performance level I have reached as compared with fullmastery (the distance I have to cover in order to acquire acertificate of full competency)?
  • does my performance yield any surplus credit (honours points,compensatory points)?

re 1, 10: Offer opportunities for masterylearning, including as much time and help as is needed to acquirefull competency, as an incentive to exceed half-baked progress(only deserving a poor six-minus). And offer formal testimonieswhich will certify full competency.

re 1, 3: Grade on a two-point scale (Pass orFail), unless the law requires otherwise, and apply the followingdecision rules:

  • The cut-off point between Pass and Fail will be set as high asis needed for progress towards the requirements of the final exam.Do not give a Pass if the student’s performance level isinsufficient for carrying out the next tasks successfully.
  • The cut-off point between Pass and Fail should not be higher.Offer surplus credit (honours points) to students who want toexceed the minimum requirements. Specify the surplus learning goalsto be reached (or the surplus performance to be achieved) bystudents who want to acquire surplus credit. School performance isnot about pleasing the teacher but about acquiring and certifyinglearning outcomes (as specified in learning goals).

re 10, 11: Restore mutual trust between teacherand student by closing study contracts with each student inaccordance with a feasable work load, study pace and studyduration. Apply streaming (ability grouping) so that students whowork under a similar contract will get the teacher support theyneed. Cater for continuous progression in stead of wasteful repeatyears.

re 4, 9, 12: Offer enriched courses (honoursprograms) for high-ability students who usually earn surplus credit(or high marks) in the regular program. Subject prospective honoursstudents to strict entrance selection and refer them back to theregular program if the don’t keep up with the pace of the honoursprogram.

re 4, 13: Offer honours programs for highachievers who, after their future graduation, want to move to ahigher-ranking school-type. In other words: offer to them ahigh-quality preparation for that higher school-type, so that thePeter Principle will not come true.

re 10, 11: Transform special programs (such asIndependent ‘Gymnasium’, Technasium, Bilingual programs), whichrequire student to do surplus subjects or even surplus exams, intohonours programs with a highly restricted ad­mission and in whichstudents are not allowed to exceed the regular course duration.

re 4, 7, 11, 12: Offer honours courses inpostsecondary education and, in their entrance selection, take intoaccount whether the applicants earned surplus credit (or highmarks) in their secondary school career and did not exceed theregular course duration of their secondary curricula.

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